North Korea Nuclear Crisis: An International Approach to a Complex Problem
South East Asia, today, is in the throes of its most recent crisis, with US officials having confirmed that the rogue nuclear capable nation of North Korea (hereafter referred to as the North) now possesses nuclear warheads. This was quickly met with a response from the incumbent US President Donald Trump, declaring that the US shall reply with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen” should The North hold to its rhetoric and fire near the island of Guam, just outside US territorial waters[i]. This clash of rhetoric resulted in many statements from the international community, all calling for calmer heads to prevail[ii].
But how exactly can calmer heads prevail, especially in this crisis? The two belligerents in this crisis, the United States, and North Korea, are currently under the most unpredictable leaderships their country has ever seen. The United States, under Donald Trump, has seen many incoherent and sometimes downright false statements through his Twitter feed and sometimes his press conferences. Similarly, the North has a history of dictators continually opposed to the US presence along the DMZ, and has continually built its military capabilities for any supposed US-South Korean invasion[iii].
Reliance on US to mediate this crisis:
While the rest of the world is looking for peaceful resolution, it should be noted that no country can afford a full-scale nuclear war, despite any threats which both parties levy towards each other. Trump’s is seen by many as a break from the precedent set by previous heads of State, with many commenting that he, in many cases, does not listen to his security advisers and intelligence experts, and routinely goes off-the-cuff in his statements. These statements not only show the unpreparedness of the Commander-In-Chief of the United States, but also highlight the general confusion regarding his decisions in his inner circle.
The North is another power we need to consider in this scenario. The Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un, categorically stated that the North would retaliate with a full-scale nuclear attack should the US execute any operation to disable their nuclear program. This rhetoric has been in use since the start of their Nuclear weapons program. With the development of the Hwasong-14, the most recent ballistic missile, The North now can hit the US Pacific Territory of Guam, theoretically fulfilling their threats, while giving The North the biggest deterrent against any US invasion from the South.
It is therefore, very clear now that no side can consider war, even on a small scale, with the North threatening to launch its nuclear missile should there be any moves towards an armed intervention.
Options for the World
While Moon Jae-in, the President of South Korea, has confidently stated that a war between the North and South Korea is unlikely[iv], this still leaves the rest of the world in a difficult position. For years, there was only speculation on the nuclear capabilities of the North, with their previous unsuccessful missile tests not showing any signs of confidence in its nuclear program. However, the recent successful test brings to question the need to formally rein in the North to ensure that a stricter eye is kept on the reclusive nation to ensure it does not fulfill its threat and launch a nuclear strike on the US.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, there have been multiple instances of world leaders distancing themselves from the incumbent President. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the current leader of Germany has, for example, already stated that the US can no longer be relied on as a military partner due to their contentious meetings at the NATO Conference, where Trump placed the failure of NATO squarely on the other member states[v], showing the increasingly isolationist position the US is finding itself in and showing that Trump is unlikely to effectively handle any dialogue, should such negotiations commence.
Sanctions – A Useful Measure?
Regarding the North, the US finds itself in a position where the rest of the world agrees that sanctions are the best measure to rein in The North. The main concern of the US and the rest of the world is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to deter such measures, the UN has previously imposed a total of six sanctions under the umbrella of deterring the nuclear program of the North. The most recent set of sanctions imposed see an embargo on trade with the North, effectively crippling its export economy as due to the placement and the worldwide approval for said sanctions, many countries have severed trade ties with the North, with India currently only sending humanitarian aid[vi]. As income generated from its exports goes directly into the funding of its nuclear program, it is not surprising to see the UN try and cut the North off from its trading partners. These sanctions are however, ineffective, as the Northern regime has always found ways around the placement of sanctions to fund their nuclear program[vii].
Sanctions now being one aspect of diplomacy, it is time for other countries to step in and effectively bring in a more stable framework for lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula.
Other Diplomatic Options
One of the major, and perhaps the only ally of the North is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, considering the recent rise in tensions, the west has been looking towards the Asian powers to provide meaningful mediation, with military commanders asking Asian countries to be more actively involved in this crisis[viii]. China has also suspended trade with the North, keeping in line with the UN Sanctions[ix]. However, it is no surprise that negotiations with the North cannot take place with China as there are more concerns for China to consider before it tries any strong arm tactics on the North.
North Korean trade mainly relies on China as its major partner, exporting around $200 million in seafood and $1.2billion in coal exports. These sanctions thus effectively cripple the economy of the North and could lead to a massive shortage of food and other essential supplies. Since the North is also a key strategic buffer for China against the US[x], China has also been calling for restraint between the US and North Korea as it fears that the sanctions could trigger a possible regime collapse as North Korea still depends on humanitarian aid to sustain its population, especially in the wake of their most recent famine[xi]. This possible regime collapse could not only trigger a refugee crisis into China, but could also throw the very nuclear weapons the North possesses into question, as a regime collapse will lead to those nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors, a prospect which is not desirable for any country.
However, since the North seems to self-fund its nuclear program, whether sanctions are in place or not, the world must look to peaceful dialogue with the North to first ease tensions between them and the US, but also ensure that their nuclear program is also put to more peaceful uses. Iran’s nuclear program is one such example of a country with a history of negative relations with the US accepting a nuclear deal which would benefit its population while at the same time allowing Iran to trade freely with the rest of the world.
Moon Jae-in, the President of South Korea, has taken one of the first steps in recognizing the urgent need for peace talks. These talks[xii], which are aimed at easing the highly militarized border along the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) and the reuniting of families separated because of the Korean War of 1950 among other matters, are a definite break from the policy of the United States as the US National Security Council has stated that the time is not right for talks with the North.
Since the prospect of nuclear war is one which will affect all countries equally, a framework needs to be put into place which will ensure that before any nuclear threat is levied, all parties are called to the negotiating table to ensure that nuclear war remains a distant possibility. Unfortunately, China does not seem to be ready to negotiate with the North more actively until its disputes, for example those concerning the South China Sea, are not dealt with[xiii].
However, dialogue seems to be the only option when it comes to providing a peaceful end to this crisis, as most other proposed alternatives will lead to military conflict. These talks can be used to first negotiate an end to the crisis, with the North and the US agreeing to scale down their rhetoric. This can be the first positive step to ensuring that an overall ease of sanctions on the North can be achieved. One of these initial steps must also include a temporary suspension and subsequent revision of the North’s nuclear programme[xiv]. This suspension and revision will pave the way for the North to embark on a UN-approved programme where their nuclear capabilities are first used for peaceful purposes, such as long-term energy generation. This will not only pave the way for an easing of sanctions, subsequently resuming trade with the North, enabling them to sell their mineral resources on the world market, but will also provide a precedent for peaceful resolutions to future nuclear crises.
While Trump and Kim Jong-Un may be amplifying their rhetoric since their missile launch on the 29th of August and Trump’s statements following this recent action, the time has come for the rest of the world to look for a solution which will ensure a peaceful end to this crisis, including a very necessary scaling down of rhetoric from both leaders. While the US cannot be relied on, due to the unpredictability of the incumbent US President, the world must look to other countries to help mediate this crisis, to ensure that there is no scenario where heated rhetoric could be the cause for either leader to instigate a conflict. The implications of such a conflict are immense for the rest of the world even if the said conflict remains below the nuclear threshold. The dangers of nuclear escalation however are real in this case.
[i] North Korea Says Seriously Considering Plan To Strike Guam, Reuters, www.reuters.com, date created: 09/08/2017, date accessed: 13/08/2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-usa-idUSKBN1AO2L9
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[vi] North Korea Cut Off by 3rd Biggest Trading Partner, Ivana Kottasová and Sugam Pokharel, CNN Money, www.money.cnn.com, date created: 01/05/2017, date accessed: 25/08/2017, http://money.cnn.com/2017/05/01/news/north-korea-india-trade-ban/index.html.
[vii] How North Korea Pays for a Nuclear Program, Alex Lockie and Madeline Sheehan Perkins, Business Insider India, www.businessinsider.in, date created: 13/04/2017, date accessed: 20/08/2017, http://www.businessinsider.in/How-North-Korea-pays-for-a-nuclear-program-and-lavish-parties-while-under-the-tightest-sanctions-on-earth/articleshow/58155336.cms
[viii] ‘India a Loud Voice, Can Help Resolve N Korea Crisis’: Top US Commander, PTI, NDTV, www.ndtv.com, date created: 12/08/2017, date accessed: 31/08/2017, http://www.ndtv.com/world-news/india-can-help-defuse-north-korea-crisis-top-us-commander-1736856.
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[xiv] Where To Go from Here: Rebooting American Foreign Policy, Richard N. Hass, Foreign Affairs, July 2017, pg 3. chard N. Hass, Foreign Affairs, July 2017, pg 3.