North Korean Challenges to USA
The world woke up on 15 Sep 17 with yet another launch of a missile by North Korea. A missile this time flew over the Northern Japanese Island of Hokkaido and landed in the Pacific[i]. It triggered emergency alerts in Japan. The alerts warned citizens to seek shelter. At the end of August 2017 too, an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile launched by North Korea crashed into the sea more than 1000 kilometers East of Hokkaido[ii].
War weariness of the base of the US Democratic party accentuated by 2008 world financial crisis dictated the decisions of President Obama in the world affairs to lead from the rear[iii]. The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is a legacy of Second World War, which further festered during Cold war and has been exploited skillfully by the Chinese. “US policy toward North Korea has been unsuccessful for a couple of decades,” Sheena Greitens, a North Korea expert at the University of Missouri, said in an interview. “We’re seeing the consequences of that now.” [iv]
USA and its allies in East Asia find themselves facing a North Korean pursuit of Nuclear and Missile capabilities while the Chinese have strung a chain of man made Islands in the disputed territories of South China Sea. Since 1985, there have been eight international nuclear arms agreements involving the US and North Korea. Four of those agreements aimed to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons in the first place. When those didn’t work, another four agreements tried to get the country to give up the weapons. In addition to these multiple agreements, none of which North Korea has upheld, South Korea has made 240 agreements with North Korea, obviously not all nuclear, designed to induce political and economic reform and moderate behavior. All of these well-intentioned efforts failed to meet their respective goals.[v]
Chinese Role in the Region
Vietnam’s leaders “can try their best to deter the Chinese” in the South China Sea, said Gregory Poling, a fellow in the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But when the Chinese push back hard the Vietnamese are out on a limb all by themselves.” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte claimed he told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during his second official trip to China, “I would insist that [part of the South China Sea] is ours and I will drill oil there.” “Xi replied, ‘we are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you. We want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we’ll go to war[vi].’ Combodian Prime Minister is expelling US Peace Corps volunteers from his country and has suspended collaboration on the project to recover the remains of US servicemen[vii]. These decisions are obviously have been taken on the encouragement of China.
South Korea finds itself being punished by Chinese economically for allowing deployment of Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defensive (THAAD) System on its territory. Nationalism sparked by the Chinese state controlled media has left South Korean companies facing 60% reduction in their commercial ventures[viii]. Nationalism is a familiar weapon in China’s diplomatic armoury. Chinese government made a similar effort to whip it up in 2012, shortly before Xi Jinping came to power, when officials encouraged protests against Japan’s nationalisation of islands it controls in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China. South Korea is not a usual target. But China is furious at its decision to deploy the missile-defence system, known as THAAD. The South Korean Company Lotte’s ventures in China on whose golf course the THAAD has been deployed is being severely harassed by the state without any serious US push back.China has in recent weeks begun alleging code violations against South Korean firms as an excuse to shut their retail facilities in China.[ix]
Implications of Military Option Against North Korea
South Korea is reluctant to support taking out of North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities in the face of conventional artillery threat of North Korea against Seoul. ‘Although, informed military opinion on conventional Artillery threat of North Korea to Seoul is seen to be limited. All forms of North Korean artillery have problems with volume and effectiveness of fire, but those issues are often more pronounced for the longer-range systems. Problems include the high malfunction rate of indigenous ammunition, poorly trained artillery crews, and a reluctance to expend critical artillery assets by exposing their positions.Based on the few artillery skirmishes that have occurred, roughly 25 percent of North Korean shells and rockets fail to detonate on target. Even allowing for improvements and assuming a massive counterstrike artillery volley would be more successful, a failure rate as high as 15 percent would take a significant bite out of the actual explosive power on target. The rate of fire and accuracy of North Korean artillery systems is also expected to be subpar. This belief is founded on the observably poor performance of North Korean artillery crews during past skirmishes and exercises.’[x]
Although North Korea could technically open fire on South Korea with all of its artillery systems at once, this would open Pyongyang up to significant counter-battery fire and airstrikes that could rapidly reduce the artillery force it has so painstakingly built up. Instead, studies have shown, only a portion of North Korean artillery would be used at a time. This is particularly true for the advanced systems that are most important to Pyongyang: long-range artillery that is able to strike at Seoul.
Aside from constraints on range and volume of fire, North Korea has to decide what targets to hit in South Korea. There are two realistic options: a counterforce attack or a countervalue attack. In a counterforce attack, North Korea would target South Korean and possibly even U.S. military facilities near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and north of Seoul. A countervalue attack, on the other hand, is intended to shock South Korea by causing significant civilian casualties and damage to economically critical infrastructure. If North Korea opted for a countervalue attack, the lack of focus on South Korean and U.S. military targets would reduce Pyongyang’s ability to limit any response. (Typically, the easiest way to counteract enemy artillery is to destroy it in place.) Engaging civilian targets and infrastructure would not only limit the effectiveness and sustainability of the North Korean artillery volley itself, but it would also open up Pyongyang to more significant counteraction targeting. A mix of both counterforce and countervalue responses may mitigate this risk but would in turn lower the overall effectiveness of the mission compared to full commitment.[xi]
North Korean Propaganda
North Korea is focusing its propaganda against Japan, South Korea and USA. “Let’s reduce the US mainland into ashes and darkness,” said a spokesperson for the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee. He even said the US should “be beaten to death as a stick is fit for a rabid dog.” The spokesperson didn’t stop there: “The four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche,” the spokesperson continued, referring to the country’s “self-reliance” ideology. “Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.” The spokesperson didn’t spare South Korea, either: “The group of pro-American traitors should be severely punished and wiped out with fire attack so that they could no longer survive.”[xii]
North Korean Goals
The long-range goal of North Korea is to make the US stop supporting the South so as to unify the Koreas. “Our final goal is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the US and make the US rulers dare not talk about military option,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying by the state news agency, KCNA[xiii].Departure of the US military from the Korean peninsula serves Chinese desire and design for its emergence as unchallengeable regional power and furthers their goal of emerging as world power. As the UN sanctions against North Korea are tightened, Pyongyang will need to demonstrate its weapons capabilities. This will act as both deterrent and sales pitch. Rogue nations and organisations with resources but shunned world over would be interested parties. Such deals offer a hope of financial support to North Korea and capabilities to rogue nations and organisations.
Chinese Role in North Korea
President Kim of North Korea is perceived to have acquired power through Chinese benevolence. One of his uncles was known to be Beijing’s man in Pyongyang. He is supposed to have hand-held him during the initial stages of the settling down of Kim. Kim is said to have had him killed by an anti aircraft gun to send a signal to his detractors both domestic and foreign. While China officially wants a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, Beijing has long tolerated North Korea’s weapons program because it sees the collapse of Kim’s regime as a greater strategic threat. That could lead to UStroops on its border aligned with a unified Korea, eliminating the buffer that North Korea now provides — along with its regular threats against common enemies. China is also concerned that new missile defense systems in South Korea and Japan could counter its own military capabilities, and that those countries may one day seek their own nuclear weapons to deter North Korea[xiv].
The Chinese have been explicit in stating that they would not allow the turmoil of the Korean peninsula to spill over across the Yalu River. Gen MacArthur and the US discovered the same in 1953, when the Chinese were far weaker and were under threat of nuclear Armageddon as well. The Chinese have repeatedly insisted that they have far less leverage over North Korea than what the US and world perceives. The Chinese have been cooperating in the UN Security Council in a limited manner with USA. The Russians have been quick to step up and facilitate petroleum trade with North Korea in the face world pressure. Russia has recently been making inroads to counter China’s perceived clout with North Korea. Overtures include Russia’s forgiveness of Soviet-era debt. Moscow is one of the largest donors of food aid to North Korea[xv]. Chinese would be loath to see expansion of Russian influence in North Korea.
Implications for USA
The US has four broad strategic options for dealing with North Korea and its burgeoning nuclear program[xvi]. First, Prevention: A crushing U.S. military strike to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenals of mass destruction, take out its leadership, and destroy its military. Second, Turning the screws: A limited conventional military attack—or more likely a continuing series of such attacks—using aerial and naval assets, and possibly including narrowly targeted Special Forces operations. Third,Decapitation: Removing Kim and his inner circle, most likely by assassination, and replacing the leadership with a more moderate regime willing to open North Korea to the rest of the world. Fourth, Acceptance: The hardest pill to swallow—acquiescing to Kim’s developing the weapons he wants, while continuing efforts to contain his ambition.
Pyongyang as a nuclear power could pressure the South to abandon its defence treaty with South. And get the US troops off the Peninsula. This scenario would change the balance of power in East Asia in a profound manner. It would undermine the US power and prestige. Japan would be constrained to develop their own capabilities. China would welcome weakening of US positions in Asia. The situation could be compared to 1950s but with two major differences. There is no USSR on the other side and North Korea is not attempting to capture South Korean territory but attempting to acquire nuclear capabilities. Unlike the invasion of an ally, US public opinion does not seem to be seeking a response to the nuclear program of North Korea.
None of these options are likely to be appealing to President Trump and his National Security Team. US could relook at dominating Pacific more forcefully and support allies in East Asia. There appears to be very limited appetite for war in both US and South Korea. The actions of North Korea and China constrain US options in South China Sea, East Asia and her trade relations in the region.During the course of Net Assessment of US options against North Korea, US may discover that China is more vulnerable to turmoil on the Korean peninsula and President Xi is susceptible to coercion on this issue, thereby offering President Trump an avenue. It is to be seen how US does avail of this avenue. The challenges to Chinese success due to the North Korean actions may be transient. Kim has shown to be remarkably ruthless and independent in pursuing his interests. The Chinese seem to be already realizing that Kim is unlikely to be an asset of interest in the long run.
Given the current relations between Russia and USA, Russians would be eager to enhance the US difficulties. The current mood inside US Congress is rabidly anti Russian. Notwithstanding the instincts of President Trump, Russian – US animosity is unlikely to see an early end, at least during the current Presidential cycle. Russia would be there during the negotiation phase on the issue and shouldbe a spoiler both for USA and China.
Implications for India
China has followed a similar long-termapproach against India as did against USA. She has crafted policies unencumbered by ideological compulsions. North Korea has been aproxy of China since the Korean War. North Korea is on the verge of being accepted as a nuclear power. It has been openly threatening the US and its allies in the region of annihilation. The Chinese trade has immensely benefitted from US indulgence. She is now targeting the US with money earned through the US indulgences. Indian belief that China would be indulgent to seek Indian markets may be misplaced. She would employ trade with India as weapon against India too as she is doing against USA. China understands that democracies are vulnerable to pressure groups. Trader and manufacturers are one of the significant pressure groups both in India and USA.
It has Pakistan, an accepted nuclear power challenging India from the West and constraining India’s cooperation in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan too seeks balkanisation of India. US – Pakistan relations are already headed south. China has been attempting to foster anti India sentiments in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. She is attempting to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan. India needs to create leverages against the Chinese Dragon.
Only defensive actions by India are unlikely to be help in the long run. Expanding cooperation with Vietnam and Taiwan in a significant manner must be on the anvil for India. The cooperation with Vietnam must strive to ensure her emergence as a nuclear power. The cooperation with Taiwan must be economical and ideological. The political parties and social organisations in the country must be encouraged to undertake the same.
An emerging axis of India – Japan – US and Australia would not only be of interest to India but would also facilitate US options.US presence inthe Korean Peninsula is in India’s long-term interest.