DAYS away from the Trump-Xi Jinping meeting, North Korea launched yet another missile into the Sea of Japan.
Looking beyond the rhetoric, what can the US and the other regional powers really do about North Korea? They each have options and choices but these have serious and unpalatable consequences.
While in no way underplaying the regional threat and destabilisation caused by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs; as I have previously written in Asian Correspondent, North Korea’s potential threat is infinitely greater than its actual threat. North Korea cannot use its arsenal against anyone because it knows the inevitable retaliation will result in the regime’s destruction.
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That the strategic and security interests of the US, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan intersect on the Korean peninsula significantly explains why North Korea has become such an intractable problem.
While the respective interests of these powers converge on the peninsula, their differences have resulted in their unwillingness to adopt a united front vis-à-vis Pyongyang.
Pyongyang has ruthlessly exploited the divergence between the regional powers and managed to avoid real consequences for its provocative acts. North Korea is regarded as a pariah by these powers but due to their respective parochial interests, none of them want the regime to collapse.
North Korea claims it wants recognition as a nuclear power state. The US and the other regional powers will not accept this.
Pyongyang will not negotiate away its nuclear and missile program. As I was told by a senior US official, the regime “plays a bad hand very well”. It will not give away its only ace, or joker!
North Korea’s isolation and economic dysfunction has inoculated it against the impact of economic sanctions, even in the unlikely event that the regional powers work in unison to squeeze the regime.
Trump recently said China has great influence over North Korea. “And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. And if they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”
He also said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” Just how Trump intends to ‘solve’ the North Korean problem remains to be seen.
What can the US do? It can bomb North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites. Indeed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said all options were being considered.
However, the US is unlikely to strike North Korea. The other regional powers strongly oppose military action. There is no guarantee a bombing will destroy all the nuclear and missile sites. Pyongyang will likely respond to a US strike with a conventional attack against South Korea and Japan. The repercussions of a US strike on North Korea are too problematic, which make it unpalatable and unlikely.
China can put real pressure on North Korea but won’t because destabilising the regime is not in its strategic interests. China does not want the consequences of dealing with North Korean refugees crossing into its territory and will regard a unified Korea closely allied to the US as a strategic defeat.
Indeed, North Korea still exists because of China’s intervention in the Korean War. China entered the conflict, not to save the regime, but to prevent having US forces indefinitely stationed along its border.
North Korea has long been a problematic strategic and security issue for the US, China and Russia. The regime’s antagonism with the US is well known but it has also been a thorn for China and Russia. During the Cold War, Pyongyang constantly played the two communist powers off against each other to its advantage. Against all the odds, the regime has managed to survive.
The regional powers really have two workable options.
They can ignore North Korea and cease all contact, knowing the regime is essentially hamstrung but determined to survive. Ignoring Pyongyang will infuriate the regime but it has no means of responding other than with more provocations and bombast. This would require the regional powers acting in unison in a concerted strategy that has so far proved elusive.
A more problematic option is to accept North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. However, this too will have unknown and unintended consequences. Pyongyang may engage in weapons proliferation, supplying terrorist and other rogue trans-national groups in exchange for materiel and hard currency. Indeed, throughout its history the regime has often behaved as a guerrilla/gangster entity engaging in assassinations, bombings and terrorist acts. A blockade of North Korea could prevent this from happening but that too would require the regional powers working together.
Despite Trump’s rhetoric, North Korea will likely remain an intractable regional problem.
The regime will not simply disappear and there appears no tangible path to meaningful engagement.
Over a decade ago, I asked a US official what he thought would happen with North Korea. He said the regional powers and Pyongyang would, “keep kicking the can down the road”. That “can” has taken quite a battering but it will likely continue to be kicked down that very long road.