North Korea: a vexing situation for the USA and China

North Korea’s Pukguksong-2 test increases the tension

North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has again provoked international condemnation whilst developing its current ballistic missile and nuclear programme.

North Korea: Pukguksong-2 missile test

On 12th February 2017, North Korea launched a Pukguksong-2 missile (North Star 2, 북극성 2), from a tracked mobile launch vehicle. The solid-fuel missile is believed to have reached an altitude of 340 miles (550km) and travelled downrange 310 miles (510km) into the East Sea. The missile fell into North Korean territorial waters of the East Sea (disputed by Japan, which it considers it to be the Sea of Japan), and did not pose any risk to Japan. This missile test was primarily of chief concern for the participating nations of the Six-Party talks.

The six-party talks were a series of talks held in Beijing, China, which began on 27th August 2003 and were attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. These talks were discontinued on 14th April 2009 following North Korea’s withdrawal. The six representative nations statements that followed the 12th February tests are:

China: It opposed North Korean missile tests that run contrary to United Nations resolutions.
“All sides should exercise restraint and jointly maintain regional peace and security,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular briefing, adding that China would participate in talks at the United Nations on the launch with a “responsible and constructive attitude”.

Japan: Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, described the test as “absolutely intolerable”. Japan said further sanctions against North Korea could be discussed at the United Nations, and called on China to take a “constructive” role in responding.

North Korea: In his 2017 New Year’s speech the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, said Pyongyang was in the “final stages” of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Russia: Russia’s foreign ministry expressed concern over the launch, RIA news agency quoted the ministry as saying “Moscow also called all related parties to remain calm and to refrain from any actions which may lead to escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula”.

South Korea: The Defence Ministry put forward a plan, ‘Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation’, to the South Korean parliament last week, with part of the plan calling for “wiping a certain section of Pyongyang completely off the map”. The operation calls for pre-emptive bombing attacks against locations that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is known to frequent. The strike would also target his top military commanders. South Korea intends to use domestically produced surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, the Hyunmoo 3 (현무3) – which has a range of more than 600 miles (960km). There are also growing calls in the South for Seoul to ask the US to once again deploy nuclear weapons on its territory and analysts at the Sejong Institute, called for South Korea to develop and deploy an independent nuclear strike capability.

USA: President Trump said: “I just want everybody to understand, and fully know, that the United States of America is behind Japan, our great ally, 100 per cent”. A US administration official said: “Trump and his aides are likely to weigh a series of responses, including new U.S. sanctions to tighten financial controls, an increase in naval and air assets in and around the Korean peninsula, and accelerated installation of new missile defence systems in South Korea”. The official also said: that given that the missile was believed not to have been an ICBM, and the North had not carried out a new nuclear explosion, any response would seek to avoid increasing tension. Speaking in South Korea on Friday, United States Secretary of Defence, James Mattis reassured the South Korean government that the US would retaliate should North Korea launch any attack.

“Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming”, Mattis said.

In response to the potential threat from the combined North Korea missile and nuclear programme the United Sates has sought to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea and Japan. The United States Army THAAD anti-ballistic missile system is believed to have a 150km altitude ceiling and 200km range. However, there are serious concerns by Russia and China about radar penetration by the South Korean and Japanese THAAD systems and its system intelligence gathering capability. Furthermore, there are dangers in its deployment. The THAAD system was extremely unreliable in its earlier development phase, which must give rise to concerns about civilian aircraft being hit by a THAAD missile. After all, the dangers of such missile systems were seen in the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655, by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes, on 3rd July 1988 – loss of lives 290. And Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which on 17th July 2014 was shot-down by a Russian-made BUK missile system launched by separatist forces in the Ukraine – loss of lives 298.

Military solutions to the vexing situation of Kim Jong-un’s DPRK would appear to extremely limited. Nuclear options would be quite cataclysmic, and even the conventional bombing of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre could release radiation that could have serious consequences for China, South Korea and Japan. The huge humanitarian consequences of military strikes or actions seem to outweigh military options. As for boots-on-the-ground, any attempt by South Korea to invade the North with a conventional army, would be met by an overwhelming military response from China, with possible support from Russia. The Chinese People’s Army would swiftly gain control of the North. Given that China and Russia have serious concerns about nuclear proliferation and an arms race on the peninsular; China and Russia would likely seek to maintain a North Korea buffer zone, with a regime loyal to China. It is difficult for many in the West to understand the North Korean regime, its Stalinist ideology, its paranoia, its insecurity. For many, the idea that the North Korean leadership will implode is plausible, but it is doubtful that regime change will happen anytime soon. What we do know, is that South Korea – US large-scale military drills, the forthcoming annual drill is called ‘Key Resolve’ do anger North Korea and ratchet-up tensions on the Korean peninsular.

Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, Dandong

There are those in the US that believe that China could do more to aid the situation. However, China has quite rightly maintained a steadfast position of non-nuclear proliferation and sought a stable Korean peninsular; it has also supported United Nations sanctions against North Korea. On 18th February 2017, the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China further announced the banning of all coal shipments from North Korea.

As far as the United States is concerned, President Trump has quite rightly threatened North Korea with retaliatory military action and as president-elect he offered to have talks with Kim Jong-un. It is reported that Trump said: “Who the hell cares? I’ll speak to anybody… There’s a 10 percent or 20 percent chance I could talk him out of having his damn nukes, because who the hell wants him to have nukes?” North Korea has also intimated on several occasions that it would be prepared to talk.

US- North Korean dialogue, or a resumption of six-party talks are possibilities, though the window of opportunity is small. North Korea has clearly been severely weakened by sanctions, its people’s are severely impoverished, the nation has become a pariah. Kim Jong-un has gained some leverage in any future negotiations; through its current nuclear and missile development programme. Can a deal be done, to bring peace and long-term stability to the North Korean pensinular?

The opportunities for resolving the vexing North Korea situation through dialogue and diplomacy are limited, but it is not beyond US President Trump’s ability to make a purposeful diplomatic first move.

© 2017 Dr Robert Frew. All rights reserved.