Rocks and hard places: Why there are no risk-free options on North Korea
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Rocks and hard places: Why there are no risk-free options on North Korea

NORTH Korea’s latest missile launch again demonstrates there are no risk-free options in responding to Pyongyang’s provocations.

That this launch was timed to coincide with the July 4 Independence Day festivities in the US and the G-20 meeting in Germany suggests Pyongyang succeeded in attracting maximum global attention and outrage.

Pyongyang’s strategy appears to be to develop a sophisticated missile and weapons capability as a deterrent to an attack by the US (and other perceived enemies) to ensure the survival of the regime.

As I’ve previously written in Asian Correspondent, North Korea can’t ever use their missiles because it will result in the regime’s destruction. Pyongyang knows this. Kim Jong Un and his cohorts may rule a kleptocracy but they are not stupid.

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Yet, will the regional powers (US, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan) again just condemn this latest launch and seek to tighten sanctions that have not curbed Pyongyang? This has been the constant revolving pattern: launch and condemn, while North Korea continues thumbing its nose at the regional powers. Repeating the same actions and reactions will achieve the same result: the impasse will continue.

Calls for China to “do more” to rein in North Korea are simplistic and overlook Beijing’s historically limited influence in Pyongyang. While Beijing ultimately wants North Korea to remain as a buffer zone between itself and the US and South Korea, and doesn’t want North Korean refugees fleeing into China, it has nothing to gain from escalating regional tensions. Asking Beijing to “do more” is becoming a convenient refrain to try and mask the inability of the regional powers to come up with a viable response.


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science after the test-launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July, 5, 2017. Source: KCNA/via Reuters

The regional powers have four palatable but not risk free options to break the North Korean impasse.

With UN authority, they can make a concerted effort to isolate and blockade the regime until it agrees not to test any more missiles beyond its territory. Pyongyang will attempt to divide the powers, as it has successfully done in the past, so this strategy requires patience and a concerted unified effort to have an impact.

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The US can offer North Korea a peace treaty and make clear it will not target the regime. This would place the ball in Pyongyang’s court. If it accepts the offer, negotiations would begin. Such negotiations would proceed on the understanding that further missile launches will be targeted. If the regime rejects the offer, it will further isolate itself, reduce its already limited capacity to manoeuvre, and almost invite the US to target subsequent missile launches.

With or without UN sanction but with at least probable tacit support from South Korea and Japan, the US can openly warn North Korea that it will use its anti-missile weaponry to shoot down any subsequent missile launches. The US could also use its cyber capacity to disrupt or corrupt North Korean launch processes and sequences to prevent them firing any missiles.

If the US should adopt this option, it should do so openly, making its intention clear to the whole world. It would not be a popular or wholly palatable option. Hence, transparency would be paramount. Secrecy would leave the US open to charges of subterfuge.

This risks Pyongyang striking at either Seoul or Tokyo but knowing the US would likely respond by launching a major strike on the regime, Kim’s inner circle would think twice before retaliating. Indeed, they may well decide not to test Washington’s resolve or call its bluff and decide to cease further missile launches.

The regional powers could respond by maintaining public but not private silence. This would entail monitoring but no publicity of North Korean missile launches and no public condemnations. Pyongyang must crave the publicity and outrage its missile provocations have generated. It would be immensely frustrating for the regime if it was denied these propaganda “successes”.

The North Koreans would have few options in response. North Korean media can be blocked just like the regime does with foreign information. Pyongyang may continue launching missiles but without the publicity, this would have no propaganda value.

Should Pyongyang continue launching missiles, it should be told that any strike anywhere, whether an accidental misfire or otherwise, will invite immediate retribution. It would then be up to the regime to continue gambling at its own risk.

None of these options are risk free or ideal. But unless the regional powers are willing to consider alternate strategies, there will be a continuation of the familiar merry-go-round of North Korean launches and international condemnations.

This can go on indefinitely but continued unchecked rising tensions heighten the risk of a major confrontation with devastating consequences no one wants.


** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent