More US Military Pressure, But Hesitant Beijing Must Act To Stop “Out of Control” North Korea

While Britain is consumed by the possible Brexit-induced collapse, a crisis on the far side of the world threatens an all too literal and terrifying implosion. According to the Chinese government mouthpiece, the Global Times, the “soaring regional tensions” around the Korean Peninsula are “close to being out of control”.

The spark that threatens to ignite the already simmering situation is North Korea’s test-firing of four nuclear-capable missiles on 6th March that landed close to the coast of Japan. North Korea is also increasingly close to developing the missile technology to reach the United States, causing the US to install a THAAD missile defence system in South Korea. China, in turn, objects strongly to this step, which it feels infringes on its security interests.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi says the US and North Korea are “like two trains racing towards a head-on collision” that urgently “need to apply the brakes”. The dangers of the crisis were equally clear to ex-President Barack Obama: he identified it as the most pressing threat his successor was likely to face and took Donald Trump aside for a lengthy handover briefing.

Obama’s advice might just have hit home: almost uniquely, Trump appears to be adopting a calm approach. His US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is making a low-profile visit to East Asia to explore a “new approach”. It will be intriguing to hear more about this initiative. Most approaches to solving the matter have already been tried, with minimal success.

The intractability of the issue boils down to the North Korean regime’s conviction that it needs nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival. But this decision brings it more pressure because South Korea, Japan and the US are not prepared to have an unpredictable regime pointing nuclear missiles directly at them.

The concern is correct: North Korea has proven itself both ruthless and reckless. It flouts international agreements designed to provide mutual reassurance on nuclear material and weapons. It has presided over the starvation of hundreds of thousands of its own population, assassinated opponents overseas (most recently, President Kim Jong-Un’s own half-brother) and executes alleged traitors using methods that include flame-throwers and anti-aircraft weapons.

The US and its allies could quickly overwhelm the country, but it would come, potentially, at great cost

Defence Secretary James Mattis’ visit to Japan and South Korea in February was the first overseas trip by a member of Trump’s cabinet. Mattis reaffirmed the US’s security backing for its regional allies: the American response to any North Korean nuclear attack would be “effective and overwhelming”. But North Korea makes it difficult for normal deterrence methods to work.

The US and its allies could quickly overwhelm the country, but it would come, potentially, at great cost. South Korean capital Seoul is home to 10 million people and only about 50 kilometres from the border with the North. Even with the THAAD missile defence system in place, it would be extremely difficult to defend Seoul fully against strikes launched by Pyongyang. And North Korea knows it.

Engagement has proved unproductive. The US has spent an estimated $1.35billion over two decades on inducement assistance. South Korea has attempted several variations of the “Sunshine Policy”, first adopted by former President Kim Dae-jung. These initiatives have included providing humanitarian aid with no strings attached, and setting up an industrial park at Kaesong to boost the DPRK’s economy.

The main outcome has been that Pyongyang used the savings to its own budget and commercial earnings to enhance its military capacity. It brought about the closure of Kaesong in February 2016 when the arrangement no longer suited it.

International economic sanctions have had some economic effect. But it has proven difficult to target them at a ruling elite that prioritises itself over the basic needs of ordinary people. Moreover, China - the North’s huge neighbour and closest ally - has often proved unwilling to implement the sanctions strictly.

However, the North Korean missile crisis may be the first international issue for decades in which the most influential party is not Washington, D.C.

Beijing does not want the regime to collapse; it does not want a major conflict to break out on its border either

North Korea, formed by the side China backed in the 1950-53 Korean War, remains highly dependent upon its neighbour. They could exert more pressure by properly enforcing sanctions and even adding restrictions of their own. China, though, prefers to keep the regime afloat for the same reasons it supported the creation of North Korea, as a useful buffer between its border and the American-allied South. In addition, it now also dreads the chaos and mass migration that might be unleashed should North Korea collapse.

Although the Chinese leadership clearly comes close to finding the turbulent North Koreans more trouble than they are worth - making regular public statements opposing their nuclear missile programme - Beijing does not want the regime to collapse; it does not want a major conflict to break out on its border either.

During his visit, Tillerson said that “it’s important to recognise that the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearisation have failed.” This statement, along with the THAAD deployment, suggests that the “new approach” could be more US military pressure.

Its further aim would be to encourage China to lean more heavily on North Korea. If successful, this step could then be followed by pushing Pyongyang to the negotiating table in a more serious manner than it ever approached the previous “Six Party Talks”.

That would be a risky strategy, especially, for South Korea and Japan. China has leverage over North Korea, yet it is not entirely clear how far this influence extends. Upping the military stakes increases the chances of a miscalculation or misinterpretation by either side leading to disaster.

Then again, allowing North Korea to continue unhindered with its nuclear weapons development and provocations would be a very high-risk approach too. It is this lack of good options that makes the crisis so disturbing.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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