Time for a game of chicken with Kim Jong Un
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Time for a game of chicken with Kim Jong Un

NORTH Korea’s sixth nuclear test together with its recent series of missile launches, suggests the regional powers (US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia) are now left with two actionable but stark options in dealing with Pyongyang.

Either they accept that North Korea is a nuclear state with a missile arsenal or they respond militarily to any further nuclear tests and missile launches by the regime.

As unpalatable as it is, the regional powers must accept that the over two-decade attempt to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear state has failed.

Pyongyang will not negotiate away its nuclear and missile capability. They are its only “trump” cards. Although the regime can never use its weapons without inviting its own destruction, without them, North Korea would have no leverage with which to threaten the region in an attempt to extort aid and concessions.

Kim Jong Un and his cohorts preside over a kleptocratic-guerilla regime. Bullying, blackmail and extortion are hallmarks of its modus operandi. Conventional diplomacy has never worked with this regime, which has never negotiated in good faith nor ever intended to abide by its agreements.

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Economic sanctions have proven to be ineffective in curbing the regime and further punitive measures are also unlikely to force Pyongyang to moderate its behaviour.

China, South Korea and Russia, each with a land border with North Korea, could work in unison to squeeze the regime economically but their leverage with the Kim regime is problematic, irrespective of American and other international calls for China especially, to “do more”.

The only language Pyongyang understands is force.

In 1994, the first North Korean nuclear crisis was diffused when the US was on the verge of launching air strikes against the regime’s nuclear facilities. Pyongyang never intended to give up its nuclear program but faced with impending strikes, it conceded to participating in talks with the US and its allies. This lead to the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement in which North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program and allow international inspections to verify its compliance, in exchange for energy aid from the regional powers.

Kim’s behaviour is reminiscent of school bullies and spoiled brats who dominate others through fear and intimidation. It’s only when they are physically confronted by a stronger individual or group that their “power” evaporates.

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(File) North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during a ballistic rocket test-fire through a precision control guidance system in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 30, 2017. Source: Reuters/KCNA

Kim also happens to be the unchallenged authoritarian leader of a brutal and murderous regime who rules through fear and favour. It’s likely no one in his cohort is warning Kim of the possible consequences of the escalating tensions caused by his actions, fearing the loss of their privileged positions in the regime, and probably their lives too.

Knowing that Kim has murdered members of his own family for “opposing” him, it would take an unimaginable act of personal courage for anyone to question his actions.

Kim and his inner circle may be betting that for all their protestations and condemnations of his nuclear and missile programs, the regional powers ultimately won’t respond militarily against the regime.

Indeed, Kim’s gamble may off.

The regional powers may not resort to the military option but Kim is playing for keeps, the stakes are high, and miscalculation will result in the destruction of the regime.

However, if the regional powers cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear state, they cannot avoid military options to curb the regime. Pyongyang should be issued with an ultimatum: any further nuclear tests and missile launches beyond North Korean territory will be met with force.

This would entail targeting known nuclear and missile sites with cyber warfare and/or shooting down any missiles the regime launches beyond its borders. “Surgical strikes” against known nuclear and missile sites should be an option too. If Pyongyang responds by bombing Seoul or Tokyo or attempts to fire missiles at the US, it will do so knowing the Americans and their allies will counter with overwhelming force that will destroy the regime.

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(File) People watch a huge screen showing the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), July 5, 2017. Source: KCNA/via Reuters

This is a high stakes game of chicken with potentially devastating consequences for North Korea and the region but continuing along the same path since Pyongyang announced in 2002 it would no longer abide by the 1994 Agreed Framework, will likely lead to a military confrontation too.

It’s a case of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t”, but surely acting is better than reacting?

It’s also possible that, confronted with superior force, Kim will back down.

This latest nuclear test by the North Korean regime demonstrates the failure of diplomacy and sanctions in curbing its weapons program. If Pyongyang and the regional powers continue repeating the same behaviour and response – further nuclear and missile tests, followed by condemnation of these actions and the imposition of further sanctions – the impasse of the last 15 years will continue. The more the North Korean nuclear and missile crisis escalates, the greater the likelihood of a military confrontation.

The region may already be at that tipping point where the only remaining actionable options for the regional powers are to accept that North Korea will continue developing its nuclear and missile programs, or to issue the regime an ultimatum: cease the nuclear and missile tests or face a military strike that could trigger the its destruction.

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