Escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula draw in the world

| September 30, 2017 | 0 Comments
At his September speech at the United Nations, President Donald Trump warned that if the U.S. ”is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to destroy North Korea.” Above, U.S. vessels patrol the South China Sea. (Photo:  U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Z.A. Landers)

At his September speech at the United Nations, President Donald Trump warned that if the U.S. ”is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to destroy North Korea.” Above, U.S. vessels patrol the South China Sea. (Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Z.A. Landers)

On Sept. 3, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) under Kim Jong-un detonated its sixth and largest nuclear test — estimated at between 50 and 100 kilotons — about three times larger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The state Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the North Korean regime claimed to have successfully tested a “hydrogen bomb” — a fusion nuclear device that would have a far larger yield than traditional fission nuclear weapons such that it was smaller while providing greater explosive power.
It also stated that the hydrogen bomb tested was specifically designed to fit onto an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The previous month, North Korea had launched two three-stage test missiles that it claimed had intercontinental range. A year earlier, in March 2016, Kim announced that the regime had achieved the miniaturization of nuclear warheads that could be fitted to such missiles.
Nevertheless, at that time, western analysts questioned whether the missiles had ICBM range, if they could achieve successful re-entry into the atmosphere, and if nuclear devices could be placed inside a missile warhead. But a confidential U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report, reviewed in August by The Washington Post, declared that “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles” and that it could have an effective and accurate ICBM by sometime in 2018. And a separate report estimated that it had enough nuclear materials to create up to 60 nuclear devices — a significant increase over previous assessments.
U.S. President Donald Trump condemned these missile launches and reiterated his call to the Chinese communist leadership under President Xi Jinping to do more to help rein in North Korea. But he publicly declared that “we will handle North Korea.” Then, in early August, he entered into a “war of words” with the North Korean regime and Kim — beginning with a warning that North Korean threats would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
In an unusually detailed statement carried by KCNA, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Strategic Force Commander Gen. Kim Rak Gyom stated that a plan would be finalized by mid-August for firing four intermediate-range Hwason-12 missiles over Japan toward waters off the American South Pacific island of Guam with “enveloping fire.” Upon giving KPA supreme commander Kim the plan, the KPA strategic force would then “wait for his decision.” Looking ahead, it’s possible Kim will just leave the decision hanging — or the only indication of his decision could be the launch of the four missiles.

Trump’s North Korea standoff

North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un continues to antagonize the world with his ballistic missile tests, the most recent of which he claimed had intercontinental range. (Photo: Flickr, Driver photographer)

North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un continues to antagonize the world with his ballistic missile tests, the most recent of which he claimed had intercontinental range. (Photo: Flickr, Driver photographer)

Trump, upping his earlier warning, announced that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” to retaliate against any North Korean offensive action, though he added that “hopefully Kim Jong-un will find another path.”
There are serious questions about the operation and accuracy of the Hwasong-12 missile, which has failed three of its four test firings and North Korea is unlikely to have obtained good missile data on its re-entry vehicles, which appear to be a continuing problem. Even so, Trump’s rhetoric went on: “North Korea better get their act together, or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world.”
For its part, the Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe ordered the Japanese self-defence force to move its PAC-3 anti-ballistic missiles from central Japan, around Tokyo, to the southern portion of Honshu Island near Hiroshima, which the North Korean warning had cited as a potential missile path toward Guam. As early as August 1998, North Korea had, without warning, launched a three-stage test Taepo Dong 1 missile over Japan and into the Western Pacific Ocean — with another missile overflight in 2009.

Reopening hotlines
In June 2017, newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for closer ties and dialogue with the North Korean regime in Pyongyang, including reopening their cross-border hotlines. Moon stated South Korea would “take the lead in dealing with Korean Peninsula issues without relying on foreign countries.”
When he subsequently met with Trump at the White House, Moon, who is South Korea’s first left-leaning president in nearly a decade, reportedly called for closer ties with North Korea, primarily through dialogue and economic co-operation, while the Trump administration has called for tougher sanctions, military pressure and diplomatic isolation toward the Pyongyang regime.
In speeches in Washington, D.C., and Berlin, Moon laid out what has come to be called the “Moon Jae-In doctrine” calling for “Four Nos” on relations with North Korea. These include (1) No hostile policy toward North Korea, (2) No intention to attack North Korea, (3) No attempts to undermine or replace the North Korean government, and (4) No efforts to artificially hasten Korean reunification.
This was intended to have the two Koreas “mutually halt acts of hostility” along their borders — the demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel as well as their East Sea and West Sea maritime boundaries, to lessen tensions and provocations, and to return to a dialogue.
In January 2016, South Korea had restarted its DMZ loudspeaker broadcasts of political messages and “K-pop” (Korean popular) music in response to the North’s fourth nuclear test that had taken place that month. North Korea responded by turning on its own giant, though weaker, propaganda Otheloudspeakers along the DMZ.

Closing key economic links
Then, in February, following further North Korean missile launches and a nuclear test, South Korea closed the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) located inside North Korea, just north of the DMZ. The complex was established in 2004 to enable South Korean companies to manufacture goods using more than 50,000 paid North Korean workers — a commercial project to encourage reforms to the North’s state-run economy. The KIC products were then exported for sale in South Korea — providing a key source of industrial production and foreign exchange for North Korea. The industrial park was considered one of the last remaining points of peaceful engagement between the two Koreas.
In response to the Kaesong Complex closure, the North expelled the remaining South Koreans from the industrial park and shut down two inter-Korean communication channels. One hotline between the North’s military authorities and those in the South was intended to defuse dangerous military situations.
Another North-South hotline that was disconnected was the communications channel at the liaison office located at the truce village of Panmunjom, which was established in 1971. The Panmunjom truce village was where the 1953 Korean War armistice was signed, though a technical state of war still exists, as the armistice only halted the fighting between North Korean and Chinese communist forces in the North and South Korean and United Nations (mostly American) forces in the South. There is a third hotline reportedly maintained by the Red Cross that does not seem to be in use at present.
Following two long-range ballistic missile tests in July, the Moon government called upon Pyongyang to reopen lines of communication and begin military talks on reducing tensions. But there has been no response from the North. For its side, the Moon government has stated that it is in no hurry to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex prior to renewed inter-Korean dialogue. According to a Unification Ministry official, the South Korean government “is reviewing various ways, which could prompt North Korea to respond to our call for reopening the suspended communication channels. As the long disruption of the [hot lines] is not good for inter-Korean ties, they should be reopened as soon as possible.”
There have even been calls for establishing a new hotline linking North Korea, South Korea and the United States to permit spontaneous dialogue. In early August, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the United States was not seeking to topple the Pyongyang government and was willing to begin “a dialogue about the future” with North Korea, but only on condition that it gives up its nuclear weapons. In partial response, the South Korean presidential Blue House issued a statement that such a dialogue would include consulting with Seoul.

What does North Korea want?
North Korean defector and now Seoul-based Dong-a Ilbo newspaper writer Joo Sung-ha wrote in July that the Kim regime was then very close to gaining nuclear-armed ICBMs. He predicted the North Korean ICBMs were intended to be used as bargaining chips to secure direct negotiations with the U.S. “The goal of the North Korean regime is to receive a guarantee from the United States of full security of the regime’s own survival, a peace treaty [ending the 1950-53 Korean War] and a large economic support package” — estimated at tens of billions of dollars — to reform its economy.
Otherwise, the North Korean regime could escalate the regional tensions by threatening its Asian neighbours South Korea and Japan as well as the U.S. military bases in those countries. It could also threaten to sell advanced nuclear and missile technology to other pariah states.
But any direct U.S.-North Korean negotiations would face serious reluctance from the Trump administration given North Korea’s long record of broken promises. The last serious U.S.-North Korea negotiations collapsed in 2012 when Pyongyang launched a long-range test missile that derailed an agreement on a North Korean nuclear development freeze in exchange for massive U.S. food aid.
UN Secretary General António Guterres condemned the July launch of ballistic missiles as a “manifest violation of Security Council resolutions.” He repeated his call for North Korea to respond to South Korea’s proposals to reopen communication channels, particularly military-to-military, to lower the risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding and reduce tensions. Following the DPRK’s sixth nuclear test in early September, Guterres declared that the “most dangerous crisis” the international community faces today is the “nuclear risk” posed by North Korea.

The “New York Channel”
There are reports that American and North Korean diplomats have met in back channel discussions at the United Nations headquarters in New York — sometimes referred to as the “New York Channel” — on an on-again off-again basis over the past decade. Contacts through the North Korean delegation to the UN were to address issues of Americans imprisoned in that country and deteriorating relations.
In mid-2016, during the Obama administration, discussions were broken off when North Korea restarted nuclear testing, but were reportedly restarted in the early months of the Trump administration. Despite Trump’s current rhetoric, it is understood that this back channel diplomacy has been quietly re-started as a way to discreetly exchange messages and information directly between Washington and Pyongyang. There have also been informal talks in Europe between North Korean officials and non-governmental representatives over the past year.

The view from Beijing and Moscow
In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for a “dual suspension” agreement to “defuse a looming crisis on the Korean Peninsula.” He proposed that North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile testing while, in exchange, the United States and South Korea would halt their annual joint military exercises that North Korea sees as a prelude to an invasion. He said this would “help the parties to break out of the security dilemma and return to the negotiating table.” This dual suspension approach was supported by Russia.
Security observers have oft noted that China has deep fears about a collapsed North Korean state, resulting in a flood of malnourished North Koreans streaming into northeastern China. And this is compounded by the possibility of South Korean forces — perhaps with American military support — attempting to unify the peninsula under one government. As a result, this is a particularly sensitive issue for the Chinese communist leadership in Beijing — there are increasing reports that an additional 150,000 of China’s People’s Liberation Army troops have been deployed to the northeast region facing the China-North Korea border.
Then, during Trump’s August “war of words” with North Korea, China’s semi-official Global Times newspaper editorialized that the Chinese government was “not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time.” And the paper warned that “if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.” China would do this under Article 2 of its mutual aid and co-operation treaty, signed in July 1961 and still legally binding.
At the same time, China values stability in domestic and regional affairs — particularly in the run-up to the five-year 19th Communist Party conference in October this year. In addition, Mainland Chinese scholars reportedly hold divergent views on the Korean Peninsula issue — whether priority should be given to avoiding a war or realizing denuclearization. This can partly explain China’s support — as well as that of the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin — for stronger UN economic sanctions against North Korea. These expanded sanctions restrict foreign imports of North Korean coal, iron ore, lead concentrates and seafood — greatly cutting the country’s export earnings.
Then, on Sept. 11, new energy sanctions against North Korea were passed unanimously by the UN Security Council. Up to this point, no international sanctions against the North’s energy sources had been implemented. While the U.S. wanted a complete oil and natural gas embargo, China and Russia would only accept a 30-per-cent reduction on oil imports — placing an annual cap of two million barrels on refined petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel and capping crude oil at about four million barrels — probably to keep the North Korean industrial structure from collapsing, though they accepted a total ban on natural gas imports to the country. Restrictions were also placed on North Korean textile exports and any new contracts for North Korean labourers, a factor that will impact Russian Siberian resources projects.

What lies ahead in the Trump era
Many American allies and partners in Asia fear the United States under Trump is retreating from a security leadership role in the East Asian region. Writing in the London Financial Times), Edward Luce weighed whether China’s Xi Jinping, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, “sees Donald Trump as a paper tiger?” Worse, he argued, could they misread Trump, who would prove ”trigger-happy in a showdown” with North Korea?
A direct hotline or backdoor channel — through a third country such as China or at an international organization such as the UN — between Washington and Pyongyang may prove essential to heading off a potential military conflict.
Former U.S. national intelligence director James Clapper has suggested establishing residential diplomatic presence in Washington, D.C., and Pyongyang to ratchet down tensions. This wouldn’t be a concession, but rather an attempt to reduce tensions and push for dialogue.
In any case, further efforts should be made to reopen the North Korea-South Korea hotline — with the United States joining in as well. If such a direct hotline or reciprocal diplomatic presence is not possible, then greater use of the “New York Channel” might be the only way to defuse tensions —- and to de-emphasize “war of words” responses via KCNA state media and Trump’s unscripted public statements and his Twitter account.

Robert D’A. Henderson is a retired professor of international relations who currently does international assessments and international elections monitoring. Most recentlly, he’s written for the Routledge Handbook of Diplomacy and Statecraft (London/New York) and Diplomat’s
October 2016 edition.

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Robert D’A. Henderson is a retired professor of international relations who currently does international assessments and international elections monitoring. Among his recent writings is “China — Great Power Rising” in the Routledge Handbook of Diplomacy and Statecraft (London and New York).

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