North Korea-A Riddle
North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is no longer the joke it once was thought to be.
The estimates so far of sixth nuclear test by North Korea suggest an explosive yield that could run into hundreds of kilotonnes. This is sufficient to decimate a major US city.
Earlier, North Korea first tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is capable of reaching American territory.
North Korea relies on increasing militarisation and show of missile and nuclear prowess for various reasons:
- The nuclear capability is primarily meant to ensure the survival of the regime. Part of its ploy is to convince its impoverished and isolated citizenry of the need for the country to attain military parity in light of the presence of the U.S. military shield in South Korea and Japan.
- To justify the years of the Kim family rule, as these tests add to the myth of strong leadership by its 33-year-old, third-generation dictator, Kim Jong-un.
- It wants to break the US’ alliance with South Korea and Japan. The ICBM capability is a credible tool to “decouple” the US from its allies. South Korea and Japan have every reason to doubt whether the US would risk its major cities in order to come to their rescue against North Korea.
- North Korea, like the South, desires the reunification of the Korean peninsula but on its own terms.
- The unpalatable prospect of the escalation of a possible military conflict into a nuclear war is also a way to stave off any external intervention against the dictatorship, the likes of which were seen in Iraq and Libya.
China is to blame:
Even though China has upped its rhetoric against North Korea in recent days, it should shoulder some of the blame for North Korea’s nuclearization in the first place.
Its political objective of reducing the US role in Asia resonates with North Korea’s aim of decoupling America’s alliances.
China, along with Russia, has been putting forward a “freeze for freeze” proposal which will entail North Korea freezing its nuclear programme in exchange for the US and South Korea suspending their joint military exercises. China is also banking on the assumption that a proliferation-obsessed Washington will not allow South Korea and Japan to have their own nukes. Beijing, therefore, hopes to come out on top after the crisis is over even though it too does not like a North Korea whose missiles can reach all corners of China.
Implications for India:
The defence and foreign affairs establishment in New Delhi must be carefully examining all the scenarios and thinking deeply about the changes in Asia’s security architecture that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities may bring.
- For India, the most immediate concern will be any possible diminution of the US role in Asia, which is crucial to meeting the China challenge.
- Both the eventuality of a North Korean-induced decoupling and the more distant prospect of South Korea and Japan developing their own nuclear weapons have the potential to significantly alter the security role that the US plays in the region.
- Given the history of proliferation networks, some Indian analysts are also concerned about advanced nuclear technology finding its way from North Korea to Pakistan.
For the international community to find a way forward following lessons must be learned.
- Nuclear-proliferation is driven by the rational fears of regimes, not the madness of despots. By overthrowing regimes it charged with being enemies of human rights, the West gave powerful incentives to other states to pursue nuclear weapons. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein both gave up their weapons of mass destruction programmes; North Korea’s despots learned from their fate.
- Sanctions and threats cannot always stop more states from seeking nuclear weapons. Instead, there needs to be a genuine global compact that will guarantee state survival, as long as clearly-demarcated norms are met. A nation that has faced international sanctions for over a decade, has succeeded in manufacturing a hydrogen bomb, and missiles to deliver it to the cities of adversaries across Asia and the Pacific. Pyongyang has done so despite a limited technological and industrial base.
- The world must come to terms with the fact that mega-death cannot, and will not, remain the preserve of an élite club of nations. As weapons proliferate, the risks also increase, whether by accident or design. The world must reflect — or face a long, nuclear night.
- More than 70 years after the first nuclear tests at Alamogordo in the US, the science and technology behind mass death is inexorably becoming easier for determined states to master. Short of war, there may be no means of stopping states from acquiring nuclear weapons.
- In many cases, like North Korea, preventive war may not be possible, because aspiring nuclear weapons states have superpower patrons — in this case, China — or conventional-weapons capabilities that can inflict damage too massive to countenance.
Military threats by US no more seems to be an option:
If US President Donald Trump does not engage North Korea in a dialogue process and continues to sound military threats following are the possibilities:
- With its enhanced capabilities, North Korea is bound to become more assertive. This is already evident in its demand that the US cease flying bombers over the Korean peninsula.
- A threat may potentially trigger a nuclear war.
Direct talks are the only way out to de-escalate the crisis:
- Clearly the tough talk is not working — it is only pushing North Korea’s totalitarian regime to take even more provocative steps in a quest to attain the status of a de facto nuclear power.
- China is the only regime with some degree of influence — though it is not clear exactly how much — over the North Korean regime. The Chinese, however, seem to be willing to live with a nuclear North Korea as opposed to applying drastic trade sanctions that could lead to a crippled economy and a refugee crisis besides other unpredictable response by a beleaguered regime. Internation community must pressurize China to tackle North Korea in its own way.
Accepting that North Korea won’t give up its weapons we need to open the door to pragmatic negotiations that acknowledge the realities. For example, the North Korean government could be offered some economic incentives and diplomatic recognition in return for capping its arsenal.
- Should the dialogue process resume, North Korea will have greater leverage this time around and can demand further concessions with the aim of unravelling America’s security alliances in East Asia.
- Normalising with N. Korea will have costs: It might push other states to also seek nuclear weapons.
In light of all this, it is important to de-escalate the conflict by having direct talks involving the U.S., China, South Korea and North Korea. Multilateral talks are, in fact, by far the best option.