NORTH Korea’s recent fifth nuclear test and latest round of missile launches has resulted in the latest cyclical international reaction to the regime’s belligerence. This included condemnation of Pyongyang’s rogue behaviour, calls on China to pressure the regime to curtail its provocations, and threats of a further tightening of sanctions.
Since the unravelling of the 1994 Agreed Framework in 2002 in 2002, this has been the pattern in international dealings with North Korea. The regime periodically engages in provocative and aggressive actions not because it believes it is being threatened externally but to blackmail its supposed allies and foes (China, South Korea, Japan and the US) to give it much needed aid.
North Korea’s only objective is survival. The regime’s actions are premised on the belief that China, South Korea, Japan, the US and Russia will not allow the regime to collapse for geo-strategic and economic reasons no matter how abhorrent or irascible they believe Pyongyang is.
The Korean peninsula is where the geo-strategic interests of the US, China, Russia and Japan, intersect. A concerted diplomatic and economic effort by these powers acting in unison could exert enough pressure on Pyongyang to make the regime refrain from periodic provocative acts, or at least alter its international approach.
Vested and conflicting interests have prevented these powers from presenting a united front vis-à-vis North Korea and allowed it to play them off against one another and extract maximum leverage for itself despite its inherently weak position.
The real threat to North Korea is internal not external. The Kim dynasty (Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un) has kept its people isolated from the outside world because any openness would trigger its fall by exposing the façade of the so called workers paradise and the moral, intellectual and economic bankruptcy of the regime.
Pyongyang’s militaristic rhetoric and claims it is perpetually ready for war, are reminiscent of the state of Oceania in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The perception created by North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, the failure by the great powers to stymie that program, and the regime’s periodic nuclear tests and missile launches, clouds the reality that Pyongyang’s perceived threat is infinitely greater than its actual threat.
North Korea’s real nuclear and missile qualitative capability remains unknown.
Does the regime really have the technological capacity to deploy nuclear warheads? How sophisticated are its missiles?
Although North Korea has a huge standing army and the so called De-militarised Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea has the highest concentration of military power in the world today, the regime is essentially impotent because in reality, this power cannot be used.
Military conflict between the two Koreas would devastate the peninsula, involve China, Japan, the US and Russia, and cause global economic chaos.
However, this horrendous prospect is unlikely because North Korea will not deliberately trigger a military conflict. Pyongyang knows any conflict with external forces would result in the fall of the regime. North Korea is intent on survival. It will not launch a strike that will ensure its collapse. Without in any way downplaying the potential security threat posed by the regime’s nuclear and missile program, in reality, Pyongyang cannot use its stockpile without inviting its destruction.
This cycle of North Korean provocations followed by international condemnations, and then a seemingly diffusion of tensions, will likely continue repeating itself for the foreseeable future. The end of the North Korean regime is infinitely more likely to result from an implosion reminiscent of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, than from external pressure.
In attempting to make sense of North Korea’s behaviour and the tensions on the Korean peninsula, perceptions must not cloud the reality.
It may indeed be that North and South Korea, and the US, China, Japan and Russia, cannot find a way to resolve what has so far proved to be a seemingly intractable geo-political issue.
Or it could be that all of these states, for their own reasons, are actually content with maintaining the status quo despite their rhetoric and the enmity and mistrust among some of them.
An idiosyncratic and irascible North Korea may be preferable to the uncertainty and the cost of dealing with the collapse of the regime.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent