North Korea and a crisis in the making

The Trump administration is egging China on to take action against its proxy, using its considerable leverage with the North Korean regime.

 North Korea, missile launch, nuclear test, gunboat diplomacy, Pyongyang

Last month, North Korea’s much hyped missile launches fizzled out and the impending nuclear test did not happen. Both missiles exploded after launch, leading to speculation about whether it was a “planned” failure. Unproven media reports claimed that cyber attacks by the United States of America had disabled the missiles. Meanwhile, Donald Trump proclaimed that he had ordered a naval strike group, led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, and accompanying ships, to sail towards the Korean peninsula in a classic attempt at “gunboat” diplomacy.

The threat was clear with Trump using the word “armada”, a word not often used by the US Navy. Trump also threw in for good measure the fact that the strike group was accompanied by submarines that were more powerful than the aircraft carrier. Strategic experts were flummoxed by the mention of submarines in the same breath as an aircraft carrier group. The US was sending out a message that it was preparing to take out North Korea’s nuclear and missile assets.

While Trump was talking up the threat of the naval strike group heading towards the Korean peninsula soon after his first summit meeting with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in Florida, his administration was left with egg on its face when news broke out that the aircraft carrier group was actually heading in the opposite direction for a pre-planned exercise with the Australian Navy. White House and Pentagon officials tied themselves up in knots trying to explain the discrepancies. The aircraft carrier group was finally ordered to proceed towards the Korean peninsula a week after Trump’s announcement. Keeping everyone guessing seems to be the leitmotif of Trump’s policies.

Meanwhile, North Korea mounted a massive military parade with display of missiles and Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator with the funny hairdo, vowed that his country was ready for war. The Korean Central News Agency of North Korea published a letter from Kim Jong-un to the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, marking the 70th anniversary of Syria’s independence. This letter said: “I express again a strong support and alliance to the Syrian government and its people for its work of justice, condemning the United States’ recent violent invasive act against your country.”

The US Vice President, Mike Pence, during his visit to South Korea, warned North Korea not to test Trump’s resolve. Pence pointedly mentioned the recent cruise missile strikes in Syria and the US’s massive ordnance air burst bomb strike in Afghanistan, hinting that such strikes should not be ruled out against North Korea. The US Navy had launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian airfield after an alleged chemical weapons attack. The US Military also announced that it had dropped the “mother of all bombs”, the biggest non-nuclear device it has ever unleashed in combat, on a network of caves and tunnels used by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Pence also announced the deployment of THAAD missiles in South Korea and reiterated the US’s “iron clad alliance” with that country. Significantly, Pence also added, “there was a period of strategic patience, but the era of strategic patience is over”. Trump had earlier tweeted that “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!”

China’s discomfiture was evident when its official spokesperson announced that the situation in the Korean peninsula remained “highly sensitive” and posed a “high risk” to regional and global security. The foreign ministry spokesperson also warned that any “provocative” action could “pour oil on the fire”. The Russian reaction was more measured. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that North Korea’s “reckless nuclear and missile action were unacceptable and violated international law”. He also warned the US not to resort to unilateral action.

It is China, however, that is caught in a diplomatic cleft stick. Trump has clearly linked trade and economic issues to Chinese action against North Korea — a geopolitical proxy for China in northeast Asia in order to keep Japan and South Korea off balance in a manner analogous to its use of the other proxy, Pakistan. Trump has acknowledged that his softer line on bilateral trade and economic issues depended on China’s willingness to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions. Clearly, the Trump administration is egging China on to take action against its proxy, using its considerable leverage with the North Korean regime.

China has imposed a ban on coking coal imports from North Korea and stopped flights as initial measures. It has also mobilised its air force during the past few days. The US has acknowledged China’s move to apply economic pressure on North Korea and prevent the sixth nuclear test planned by North Korea. China is faced with the dilemma of preserving its enormous trading and economic equities with the US and bringing a recalcitrant neighbour to heel. It has much to lose if the Trump administration designates it a “currency manipulator”, thereby triggering sanctions.

While urging for talks to deal with the situation, China ignores decades of engagement with North Korea and United Nations sanctions that have led to zero result. China has expressed its opposition to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, which justifies the deployment as a purely defensive response to North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capacities and increased belligerence. Senior defence officials from the US, Japan and South Korea have been coordinating their positions at the defence trilateral talks in Tokyo. A DTT joint statement has obliquely criticised China for applying economic pressure on South Korean companies operating in China on the issue of the deployment of THAAD.

The danger of conflict and its devastating consequences are known to all stakeholders. While North Korean bluster continues, the regime will not commit suicide. Hence, it is likely that the combination of Chinese pressure and threat of American military action will force the regime to back off. Indeed, news has been leaked about talks between American and North Korean negotiators in Oslo, a neutral venue. While this respite may be temporary, the core issue of eliminating the nuclear and missile programmes will remain. UN sanctions, including financial constraints, will remain ineffective as long as China continues to nurture and provide succour to North Korea, only occasionally rapping it on the knuckles. China, after all, provided the full range of technologies to Pakistan for its nuclear and missile programme, including facilitating transfer of missile technology from North Korea to Pakistan. For now though, an imminent conflict is off the agenda.

This commentary originally appeared in The Telegraph.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

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