Are regional powers actually willing or able to stop North Korea?
Share this on

Are regional powers actually willing or able to stop North Korea?

NORTH KOREA’s latest missile launch is further confirmation of Kim Jong-un’s determination to acquire a substantial missile and nuclear arsenal.

It must surely be clear to the regional powers – the US, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan – that Pyongyang will never negotiate away its weapons program and that diplomatic and economic attempts over two decades to prevent it from acquiring a missile and nuclear capability have failed.

Pyongyang has relentlessly and successfully pursed its weapons program despite years of sanctions and international pressure. North Korea has never negotiated with the intention to its honour agreements. It has used talks as a calculated tactic to buy time to continue developing its weapons program. The guerrilla/gangster paradigm of the regime and its juche (self reliance) state ideology, explains its distrust of outsiders including its allies, China and Russia.


People react as they see North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the country’s founding father Kim Il Sung’s birth, in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. Source: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

SEE ALSO: Party in Pyongyang: Rallies across North Korea celebrate nuclear statehood

The regional powers now have only two real and starkly contrasting options in dealing with Pyongyang. There is no diplomatic pathway to reducing tensions without the regional powers’ acceptance of North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.

Surely, the regional powers must know diplomatic attempts to get North Korea to abandon or even halt its weapons program is futile. Diplomatic engagement with North Korea can reduce regional tensions but will not result in the abandonment of the regime’s weapons program.

On 5 November 2017, US Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, revealed advice from Rear Admiral Mike Dumont, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that only an invasion and occupation of North Korea can ensure an end to its weapons program. This reasoning may be unpalatable but it is accurate.

North Korea’s latest missile launch was part of a recent series of intertwined events that will likely result in further escalating tensions.

Kim Jong-un’s recent purge of top ranking military leaders strengthens his position as leader of the regime and is a reminder of the inherent brutality of North Korean politics. But it does nothing to reduce regional tensions caused by Pyongyang’s weapons program.


North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un inspects tires at a factory in this photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang December 3, 2017. Source: KCNA/ via Reuters

President Trump again designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism on 20 November 2017. President Bush had removed North Korea from this list in 2008.

Given that North Korea has engaged in terrorist and clandestine activities, against fellow Koreans, not foreigners, including the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of Kim Jong-un, in Malaysia on 13 February 2017, Trump’s move at least has a kernel of justification and logic. Yet this and further sanctions will also have no impact on hindering Pyongyang’s weapons program.

Declaring North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism and tightening sanctions against the regime, confirms what Pyongyang already knows: that it is causing a great deal of consternation for the US and the other regional powers who have been unable to come up with any viable and sustainable strategy to curb the regime’s weapons program.

SEE ALSO: Trump administration lists North Korea as state sponsor of terrorism

Pyongyang’s feigned outrage at Trump’s “insults” and the international condemnation it has received, masks its calculated risk and delight that the regional powers appear unable or unwilling to decisively confront the regime. The differing geo-strategic interests of the regional powers also play into Pyongyang’s hands which certainly does not want these powers to agree on united action against the regime.

With tensions continuing to escalate and with no end to the impasse in sight, the risk of conflict continues to increase. If conflict does break out, it will still likely be because of miscalculation rather than by design. The Americans and the North Koreans, indeed no one, want war. Both are assuming (gambling) that the other will not deliberately precipitate a conflict. However, if tensions continue rising, one of the unintended consequences will be that the pressure must eventually find a release via either diplomacy or conflict.

There is an improbable but not impossible scenario. In November 1950 when US and UN forces were on the brink of winning the Korean War and unifying the peninsula, Chinese ‘volunteers’ intervened to save the North Korean regime because Mao Zedong deemed it was in China’s geo-strategic interests to preserve the North Korean state rather than have US troops stationed on the Chinese-North Korean border. In the current crisis over Pyongyang’s weapons program, Xi Jinping may decide it is again in China’s interests to intervene in North Korea.


A view shows a Pyongyang city mass rally held at Kim Il Sung Square on August 9, 2017, to fully support the statement of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) government in this photo released on August 10, 2017 by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang

Unlike in 1950, this time China could secure the tacit agreement of the US and the other regional powers to overtly or covertly intervene in North Korea, depose Kim Jong-un, shut down the regime’s weapons program, and install a new leader who is more amenable to diplomatic engagement while maintaining the geo-political status quo on the Korean peninsula.

SEE ALSO: China considers the US its greatest national security threat

Although the US and China have thus far been unable to formulate an agreed strategy on how to deal with North Korea, they and the other regional powers have mutual and overlapping geo-strategic and economic interests in preventing the regime from causing further destabilisation in north east Asia.

Direct Chinese intervention in North Korea would ensure the regime’s survival but Kim Jong-un would be removed and Pyongyang’s weapons program would be terminated without a catastrophic conflict. The preservation of North Korea would also ensure China and South Korea will not have to deal with North Korean refugees, nor pay the costs of modernising North Korea. And China will not have to contend with the geo-strategic consequences of Korean unification.

While Chinese intervention in North Korea may seem implausible, it is nevertheless an option that may indeed suit the interests of all the regional powers by removing Kim Jong-un and dismantling Pyongyang’s weapons program, but preserving the North Korean state.

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

Topics covered: