Tensions continue to rise in the Korean peninsula with the expectations of a sixth nuclear test by North Korea. Pyongyang’s continued pursuit of nuclear and missile development has become a headache not only for his neighbours but for the world. After withdrawing from the six-party negotiations on denuclearisation in 2008, North Korea has relentlessly pursued nuclear development unchecked by any international constraints. US President Donald Trump has offered to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if the conditions were right. However, he has also not ruled out pre-emptive military strikes. The election of Moon Jae-in as President of South Korea has complicated matters for the Trump Administration as he does not share the US hard-line on North Korea. He wishes to follow the path of dialogue and reconciliation rather than launching pre-emptive military strikes. Besides South Korea, China and Japan also feel threatened by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. President Trump has offered China a favourable trade deal if it helps in denuclearisation of North Korea, but he has also said that US is willing to go it alone if China refuses to participate.
It is not a secret anymore that North Korea is a de facto nuclear power. It wants miniaturisation of nuclear weapons and effective strike capacity on mainland United States. It can already strike Japan and parts of Hawaii. This nuclear capacity building is essentially aimed at ensuring its regime survival and the very existence of North Korea as it is at the present. This desire was shared by the North Korean leader’s father Kim Jong-il also. Hence, the pursuance of the same legacy by Kim Jong Un would make it very difficult for the world to control him and his desires.
Some analysts believe that the threat of military action might help the North Korean regime to recognise its existential choice between survival and nuclear status. Actually, it would induce China to exert pressure on North Korea than for North Korea to take it into its calculus because North Korea lives in a false assumption that it can retaliate in terms of destroying both Japan and South Korea. It should be treated as a false assumption because the United States has deployed the Terminally High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) in South Korea and Aegis Anti-Ballistic Missile Ship based defence off the coast of Japan.
China blames North Korea for bringing the anti-missile defence systems (especially THAAD) in the region because that would affect the Chinese missile defence capabilities also. China does not wish to see the Korean reunification because that could lead to American troop building on their borders. Hence, the Chinese would do anything to prevent regime change in North Korea. China is expected to exert economic pressure on North Korea to prevent military action by the United States in the region. It is significant because 80-90% of the trade by North Korea is carried out with China alone and any sanction on the same could influence North Korea’s interests substantially. In this direction, China has cut off coal imports from North Korea and has threatened to impose an oil embargo on them. In retaliation, North Korea has warned of consequences for China for the latter’s act of ‘betrayal’.
Surprisingly, it seems that North Korea is not an aggressive state as it does not wish to occupy South Korea or Japan. It merely wishes to secure its regime. The issue with this approach is only with the United States, who does not wish to negotiate with an equal adversary. To that extent, the world can live with a nuclear North Korea than pre-emptive military strikes on North Korea.
In the recent elections of South Korea, it was confirmed that masses in South Korea believe that North Korea is a brother and eventually it would not use nuclear weapons against the South Korean people. However, the American prism shows a different picture which is contestable.
Apparently, the Korean peninsula is living at the last throes of the Cold War. To testify this matter, even today China seems to be a reluctant participant in exerting pressure on North Korea. Whenever the tensions between North Korea and the United States rise, China has used North Korea as a leverage vis-à-vis the United States. It presents itself as an international player who has the sole authority to affect the behaviour of North Korea.
There have been attempts to bring North Korea on the table but it is plausible that any offer for the talks must carry inducements for North Korea, otherwise it would disembark itself from the talks again. North Korea has been asking to sit at the table with the Americans for one-to-one talks. President Moon Jae-in might also favour the talks than catapulting nuclear options in the region. Already the election of President Moon Jae-in has complicated President Trump’s carrot and stick policy for North Korea where he wished to use the ‘stick’ first and would have offered the ‘carrot’ to North Korea later. It is to be seen if this solution would be acceptable to China, or not, because this undercuts China’s role in the conflict which may be unacceptable to the Chinese.
The imminent threat of nuclear strikes by North Korea is faced by South Korea, whereas China and the United States are the superpowers rallying behind their parties. Hence, the six party talks should disembark Japan and Russia off the ship as the consequent four-party talks could then restrict complexities of multilateral negotiations and might yield substantive results for the peace of the region.
The six-party talks may not have a definite agenda yet, but the most acceptable agenda might be the maintenance of status quo in the region because denuclearisation of North Korea would not be acceptable either to China or North Korea itself. The issue here is that the definition of ‘status-quo’ is different for different parties to the conflict. For instance, South Korea may see status quo as a move towards reunification of the Korean peninsula, whereas the reunification agenda comes in conflict with China’s interests. Therefore, non-arrangement of a definite agenda, throes of cold war rivalry, superpower entanglement over regional conflicts combined with autocratic ambitions of the antagonistic party would continue to drive the Korean peninsula into future conflicts.