The North Korean Nuclear Conundrum


The world is watching with much fear and anxiety, admixed with some curiosity, the unfolding confrontation between President Trump and Kim Jong-un the supreme leader of North Korea. We still do not know whether the confrontation will lead to hostilities with predictably unpredictable and disastrous consequences or the two sides along with other interested parties will sit down and talk. Trump, with no previous political experience, has been in office for over 100 days. He has not yet put together a full team in the State and Defence departments and hence does not get competent professional advice essential to deal maturely with such a crisis.

Kim Jong-un is the grandson of the founder of North Korea who started the Korean War (1950-53) by invading South Korea, costing five million human lives including 40,000 US soldiers. The world does not have credible information on the schooling and other details of Kim Jong-un who assumed office in 2012. There are reports that he studied in Switzerland and Germany. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is considered a pariah state by the United States and the rest of the West and as such does not have normal contacts with the outside world. The state controls the flow of information inside and with the outside world.

Historical Background

It is necessary to see the current confrontation in a sound historical perspective. The 1953 Armistice ending the Korean War should have been followed up with a peace treaty. DPRK, China, and USSR wanted it. But, for reasons to do with the Cold War, Washington did not want a peace treaty as such a treaty would have required the termination of the US military presence in the Korean peninsula. In fact, Washington unilaterally violated clause 13 (d) of the Armistice Agreement by placing tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea in 1956 and followed it up the next year with Matador missiles that had the range to hit China and USSR.

In 1962/63, both Moscow and Beijing rejected DPRK’s request for assistance to start a nuclear programme. Following the collapse of the Cold War, the US removed nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1992 and the two Koreas reached a Basic Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchange, and Cooperation. Shortly thereafter, the two Koreas issued a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, pledging not to possess, produce, or use nuclear weapons and prohibiting uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.

However, Washington did not want to support reconciliation in Korea and resumed joint military exercises with South Korea. DPRK threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), talks followed with Jimmy Carter’s mediation, and in 1994 it agreed to adhere to the NPT and freeze its project against the promise of two light water reactors and humanitarian assistance from the US. Clinton was US President then and given time the agreement might have worked out. Clinton even thought of making a state visit to Pyongyang to seal the deal. His Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did go to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong il.

But Clinton’s successor George Bush condemned DPRK as part of an ‘axis of evil’ and the latter withdrew from the NPT and resumed its nuclear programme. China and Russia took the initiative for the Six Party talks (DPRK, Republic of Korea, Japan, US, Russia, and China) and once again there was progress in narrowing the differences. The Six Party talks resumed even after the 2006 nuclear weapon test by DPRK. At the last round held in 2007, DPRK agreed to freeze its programme and give a full inventory to IAEA; the US agreed to remove DPRK from the list of states sponsoring terrorism; and DPRK and Japan agreed to hold ‘intensive’ discussions’ to resolve their differences.

The US did not, however, accept the validity of the inventory given by DPRK to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, when the latter launched a satellite in April 2009 despite opposition from Washington, the Six Party talks ended without delivering the intended results.

We may note here that DPRK’s nuclear programme is not the only issue. It wants an end to the war, normal relations with the US and Japan, and financial assistance from them. Another point to note is that the annual South Korea-US joint military exercises unnerve DPRK and it makes a point of testing missiles and making aggressive statements to unnerve South Korea and Japan.

Current Confrontation

The current confrontation arose because DPRK, celebrating the 105th birth anniversary of its founder Kim II Sung, wanted to carry out nuclear and missile tests. When such tests are expected, Seoul and Tokyo get nervous. Nervousness does not generate sound policy options.

Washington needs to realize that intimidation will not work for the simple reason that, though DPRK might be destroyed in toto, before that happens Pyongyang is in a position to inflict thousands of casualties on South Korea where there are 28,000 US troops and 60,000 Japanese.

Above all, it is necessary to understand the psychology of Kim Jong-un. A dictator, without the benefit of advice from counsellors who can speak fearlessly and frankly with him, is running a grave risk of taking the wrong decisions.

Trump’s Handling of the Crisis

President Trump has been giving mixed signals, perhaps deliberately, or more likely reflecting the inherent incoherence of his administration. He has said that “all options are on the table”; that Kim Jong-un is a ‘smart cookie’ who got power at a young age and has successfully held on to it; and that he (Trump) would be honoured to meet him “if the circumstances are right”. True to his style, Trump added, “If he came here, I’d accept him, but I wouldn’t give him a state dinner like we do for China and all these other people that rip us off when we give them these big state dinners.” He went on to suggest he would serve Kim – and other visiting leaders – “a hamburger on a conference table”. Wittingly or unwittingly, Trump made sure that his public invitation will be seen as an insult in Pyongyang.

Trump’s Expectations from China

President Trump sought President Xi Jinping’s help in resolving the crisis when the two met at Mar a Lago in Florida in the first week of April 2017. Xi agreed to do what he can, but made it clear that there were limits to what he can do. A grateful Trump declared that in his eyes China was no longer a ‘currency manipulator’. The two have been speaking on the phone. Trump seems to have understood the complexity of the issue or is at least understanding it slowly.

The thought that China will successfully compel DPRK to climb down just to please Trump and hand over to him a major foreign policy victory is rather naïve. First, it is in China’s interest to let the issue remain unresolved so that the US, Japan, and South Korea will be compelled to seek its assistance from time to time. Secondly, if the regime in DPRK collapses, there will be an exodus to China with all the attendant problems. Third, if the regime in Pyongyang falls and the two Koreas get united and yet US troops remain there that will not be in China’s interest. Therefore, we may assume that China will try to defuse the crisis but will not like a permanent solution that denuclearizes DPRK.

Abe’s Moves

For years, Prime Minister Abe has been trying to remove the restrictions imposed on Japan’s military by the Constitution. The relevant article reads:

ARTICLE 9. (1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Instead of getting the article amended which might not be politically feasible, Abe got the article ‘reinterpreted’ to permit ‘collective defense’ and got the Diet to endorse that interpretation. Abe said that DPRK might send chemical weapons through missiles to Japan. Whether it is a correct professional assessment or not, Abe’s intention was to gain support for his policy for a military without restrictions. Abe has sent Izumo, a helicopter carrier to escort US warships as a way of implementing his new defence policy.

Situation in South Korea

A presidential election is due on May 9, 2017, following the removal of President Park Guen-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979. The front runner is Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who wants to open a dialogue with DPRK. Moon Jae-in is opposed to the deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missiles that are already under way. Trump publicly asked South Korea to pay the cost of USD 1 billion and Seoul has publicly refused. Trump’s National Security Adviser General McMaster has told his Korean counterpart that Seoul would not have to pay. Trump has threatened to re-open the 2012 Free Trade Agreement with Seoul. One may conclude that Trump’s relations with Moon Jae-in, if he were to be elected, will be rocky.

A Lesson from History

US policy makers might recall the Korean War. The invasion took place on June 24, 1950; US troops were rushed to South Korea under a UN umbrella; as General McArthur was planning to cross the 38th parallel, which was the border between the two Koreas, China through Nehru warned Washington that it would enter the war if that parallel was crossed; Truman did not heed Nehru’s advice to seek an end to the war through negotiations and Nehru was ridiculed for his ‘moral posturing’. Three years and five million deaths later, the cease fire took effect roughly on the 38th parallel.

What is, therefore, required is a dialogue treating DPRK with respect. A summit level meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un should be preceded by meetings at the diplomatic level, preferably in a third country. In 1994, there was Jimmy Carter to mediate and de-escalate the first nuclear crisis. Carter’s mission was publicly announced, but this time a more discreet contact might be preferable. A rational decision maker in the White House does not have all options on the table and cannot start a war without South Korea’s consent. Diplomacy is the only option and this is as obvious as obvious can be.

Ambassador K. P. Fabian is an Indian Diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, during which time he was posted to Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar and Italy.[2] During his time in the diplomatic service, he spent three years in Iran (from 1976 to 1979), witnessing the Iranian Revolution first hand. As Joint Secretary (Gulf), Fabian coordinated the evacuation of over 176,000 Indian nationals from Iraq and Kuwait in 1990–91. His multilateral experience includes representing India at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Civil Aviation Organization, Food and Agricultural Organization, World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He is also the author of two books, Commonsense on the War on Iraq, which was published in 2003 and Diplomacy: Indian Style.

Originally published in IDSA

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