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Washington’s North Korea problem

By Maryam Zubair

North Korea’s series of ballistic missile tests in the first week of July culminated in a worst case scenario, as the regime successfully tested an ICBM (Inter-continental ballistic missile), which, experts believe, has the capability to reach Alaska. The North Korean missile programme, which was already a source of peril for US allies in the Asia Pacific, now directly threatens the US with the development of its ICBM by bringing US territory into its targeting capacity. This situation naturally heightens the need for a developing a successful US policy regarding North Korea.

But Washington’s choices where North Korea is concerned have always been limited and whatever options it has exercised in the past, have not been successful. During the Clinton administration in early 2000’s, the Secretary of State paid a state visit to North Korea in an effort to bring the elusive country into the international mainstream; in 2002, the Bush administration adopted a bolder approach with North Korea, putting North Korea onto his Axis of Evil – in 2003, North Korea pulled out of the NPT. Similarly, Obama’s policy of strategic patience did not bear much fruit either and left a highly belligerent, motivated and ambitious North Korean regime that has swiftly built up and developed its nuclear forces in 2017.

US objective vis-a-vis North Korea is to stop it from expanding its nuclear programme and to denuclearize it if possible. Washington has of late again started to adopt a rather stringent narrative for the North Korea issue. Aggression in the past has proved a catalyst for North Korean belligerence, rather than having a deterrent effect on North Korea’s nuclear ambition. Following the ICBM test, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that “stronger measures to hold DPRK accountable” would be taken. He also said that the US will “never accept a nuclear armed North Korea”. US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, also suggested that a military option seems likely in response to North Korea’s actions as the failure of a diplomatic path increasingly become evident. Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White said in a statement, “We remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies and to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat from North Korea. The United States seeks only the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Our commitment to the defense of our allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of these threats, remains ironclad.” More drastic measures on the US part could include vamping up the militarization in the Korean peninsula, which would be dangerous and spill over into the larger competition between US and China in the region.  Choices pertaining to North Korea are already limited but US President Donald Trump’s mercurial nature and careless rhetoric do not help. Trump has already angered China, the key regional player in Asia and a necessary ally of the US in the Korean problem, on at least two major occasions this year.

The first occasion was when President Trump, shortly after his inauguration, said the US did not have to conform to its One-China policy. Although Trump later reaffirmed US’ one-China policy, the harm that carelessly crafted statements can render to a relationship with a major power can be immense. Then more recently, Beijing’s displeasure is manifest in China’s recent statement wherein it has questioned and condemned the US bids to pressurize it to rein in North Korea and control it. This came after a tweet by Trump, wherein he claimed that “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us, but we had to give it a try”. China, which seemingly changed its stance when in June, it agreed to a fresh set of UNSC sanctions against North Korea, has recently taken a step back from its earlier eagerness to act in tandem with the US.  It has responded in strong terms, terming constant nagging of China to control North Korea as the “China responsibility theory” and stating that US must stop doing so. Beijing believes that the US is unfairly trying to shift liability by passing the buck and is uneasy with US deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems in the region.

The region’s situation is further complicated by the increased opposition of Russia, to impose to more stringent measures with North Korea. China and Russia issued a joint statement following the ICBM test calling for a halt to North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear programs in exchange for a halt to US-South Korean military exercises – The US and South Korea fired off short-range ballistic missiles during joint military exercises in response to the test. The US also launched joint naval exercises with India and Japan in the Indian Ocean, codenamed Malabar, a few days ago and has been deploying naval forces in the Korean peninsula since the past year to project power and to maintain deterrence.

But the US interest in North Korea is too ambitious. If the US desires a nuclear weapons-free North Korea, that is an unrealistic goal. The Pyongyang regime is determined to keep nuclear weapons for security reasons and the prestige that comes with being a nuclear weapon capable state.

Furthermore, some analysts have suggested that China will not be pressurized into being dictated by the US and must be given more authority to decide the rules of the engagement with North Korea, where it should devise the terms of engagament for North Korea. China’s assertiveness, coupled with one that is backed by Russian cooperation, is an alarming development. This teaming up of Russia and China is akin to that point in history, when, at the height of the Cold War, China became a nuclear power in 1964. The US was then confronted with two and not one nuclear armed rival and had to exploit the Sino-Soviet split to take steps to rapprochement towards China and USSR. The US will have to tone down its ambitious outlook of the North Korean dilemma, which is neither acceptance of its nuclear programme and denuclearization and will have to adopt a more flexible strategy by keeping the option of playing by Chinese (as well as Russia’s) terms if it wants to break out of the existing impasse.

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