North Korea celebrated the 105th birth anniversary of its founding president Kim Il-sung last Saturday. Pyongyang witnessed a jaw-dropping military parade in which a whole range of offensive weapons including several ballistic missiles were displayed. Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of their current leader Kim Jong-Un, is the one who had started North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs which remain the key in ensuring the continued rule of the Kim family. Kim Jong-un’s recent missile tests and his talk of a surprise triggered a spate of tweets from US President Donald Trump and comments by senior US officials asking Pyongyang to give up the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. This sabre-rattling coincides with US Vice President Mike Pence’s 10-day Asia-Pacific tour where he is reassuring allies of the US commitment to their security, adding fuel to these continuing polemics from both sides.
Successive US presidents from the early 1990s have been asking North Korea to abandon the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. But what makes this current standoff especially threatening is not just Trump’s repeated statements on acting unilaterally and militarily, but his dispatch of aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the Korean peninsula and his recent strikes in Syria and Afghanistan. The ongoing standoff also becomes gripping given that persistent economic sanctions and repeated test failures, including the one on Sunday, have not deterred the hermit kingdom which today stands quite close to delivering nuclear strikes into US cities.North Korean nuclear strikes can kill millions of South Koreans and Japanese, and it is no consolation that it may get destroyed completely in retaliation by US and its allies.
This emerging reality of nuclear North Korea will be the biggest game changer for the security architecture of at least the Asia-Pacific. First and foremost, it will severely diminish the policy options of big powers that have been trying to disarm the Kim regime. Kim Jong-un has surely learnt his lessons from Iraq and Libya which either could not develop nuclear weapons in time or chose to surrender their nuclear option for a promise of security by Washington.
While the clock seems to tick in favour of Pyongyang, Pence concluded his Seoul visit Monday by underlining that on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, “the era of strategic patience is over” and the US was moving ahead with all defences against North Korea including setting up the THAAD missile-defence system in South Korea. Pence said “all options are on the table” prompting the South Korean foreign ministry to say they are ready to respond to any further provocations from the Kim Jong-un regime. Starting Tuesday, the same tone is likely to be repeated in Tokyo and his tour will end in Australia which has already joined the chorus describing North Korea’s missiles tests as a threat to international security.
Back home in the US, National Security Advisor Lt Gen H R McMaster meanwhile called North Korea’s failed missile tests “provocative and destabilising and threatening behaviour” that “just cannot continue” and asserted that President Trump has already instructed the National Security Council to integrate efforts of the departments of defence and state, and intelligence agencies to provide him with options if North Korean regime “refuses to denuclearise”. This is contrary to most policy assessments by successive US administrations which have found military strikes too costly an option to be put into practice.
Along with the increasing credibility of North Korea’s nuclear deterrence capabilities, China has emerged as the second important beneficiary of the current crisis. Provocations from Pyongyang have triggered an important transformation in Trump's anti-China rhetoric. He now calls China a potential partner in addressing “the North Korea problem” underlining how “China is working with us” which shows how China, instead of being punished for the failure of the Six Party Talks, remains central to US nonproliferation strategies. Trump now confesses that China holds the key to easing the Korean crisis. He has gradually given up on his earlier formulation on how the US would act unilaterally if Beijing failed to rein in its wayward neighbour. This Sunday he tweeted, “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?”
But in the face of deteriorating China–North Korea relations, Beijing’s leverage over Pyongyang has diminished considerably. Following President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Trump earlier this month, North Korea had denied a request for a meeting by China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and China’s top representative for North Korean nuclear affairs Wu Dawei. Following the 2013 execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song-thaek—a major facilitator of talks between Pyongyang and Beijing— the two countries have since backed down from high-level meetings. In February, following the murder of Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam who was under China's protection, Beijing banned coal imports from Pyongyang.
Right from the beginning, China has been against the use of military strikes and even excessive economic sanctions to seek denuclearisation of North Korea. The last four US presidents have dealt with the issue and Bill Clinton had even considered a decapitating strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities which was given up as it was found too risky. North Korea’s nuclear facilities and capabilities have since mushroomed making it far more dangerous for the US to consider the option of military strikes. As regards the impact on India, Trump cosying up to Xi is bound to make China still more assertive in its India policy.
The author is a Professor at the School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi.