Friday 18 August 2017 News Updated at 10:08 AM IST
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Dangerous brinkmanship - Deccan Herald
Dangerous brinkmanship
Anil Wadhwa
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This July, North Korea fired two missiles with suspected Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities over the Sea of Japan, sparking fears that Pyongyang may be able to field a reliable and refined nuclear capable ICBM by 2018. On target could be not only the US bases in the region but even American cities.

The crux of the issue is an insecure North Korean leadership, which fears regime change and believes that a nuclear and missile capability is the only deterrent. It feels threatened by the presence of 50,000 US troops in Japan and 28,000 in South Korea, the deployment of Theatre High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) and joint US exercises with South Korea.

The objective of the recent escalation, despite international criticism and sanctions, appears to be aimed at forcing the US to hold direct talks which they have assiduously sought since the collapse of the Six Party talks in 2009. The outcome has been mixed, with the UN Security Council unanimously approving even more stringent economic sanctions, but also a surprise offer by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for direct talks.

The nuclear ambitions of an unpredictable North Korean regime have been a matter of concern for the world community over the past few decades. When the Cold War ended in the 1990s, North Korea, a closed, command economy, lost financial patronage of the Soviet Union. Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, was succeeded by an eccentric Kim Jong-il who continued to remain obsessed with regime survival.

Heavy investment in defence served the multiple purposes of income from clandestine sales, deterrence and extraction of economic concessions from the US, South Korea and Japan. This also had implications closer home, as with Chinese help, Pakistan transferred nuclear weapons technology, and in return got missiles and related technologies from an opaque and transactional North Korean regime.

There have been several aborted attempts to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, including using China as a facilitator. In 1994, threatened with North Korean announced intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the US negotiated an "Agreed Framework" under which North Korea committed to freezing its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for two Light Water Reactors and aid.

The agreement collapsed in 2002 over breaches by both sides, resulting in North Korea's exit from the NPT in January 2003, and its first nuclear test in 2006. In parallel, Six Party talks, which involved China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the US, which had been initiated in August 2003 to find a solution, even arrived at a breakthrough in 2005 when North Korea pledged to abandon "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes" and return to the NPT, only to walk away in 2009 following disagreements over verification issues.

Kim Jong-un, who was barely 30 when he succeeded his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011, has accelerated the missile and nuclear programme and misses no opportunity in projecting a deterrent and threatening capability.

China is seen as the only country which holds the levers vis-a-vis North Korea, and US President Donald Trump's fulminations on Twitter stem from his perception that it is recalcitrant. As much as 90% of North Korea's trade is with China, which is also the largest foreign investor.

North Korea is dependent on remittances from its workers in China and Chinese aid, especially for food and energy. But China appears to fear that excessive sanctions could destabilise North Korea, leading to widespread disorder, resulting in refugees streaming from across its borders and collapse of a buffer between it and a unified Korea which would be a staunch ally of the US.

There is also a convergence of interest between China and North Korea in the cessation of military exercises between the US and South Korea, and the removal of THAAD from South Korean territory.

Diplomatic opening
On July 29, in a show of strength following the missile tests, the US flew two supersonic B1B bombers over North Korea. The view that a massive first strike by the US and its allies can neutralise the North Korean military machine has been gaining currency.

Against this background, Tillerson's pronouncement on August 2 seemed to provide a diplomatic opening to North Korea when he stated: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military North of the 38th Parallel... we are trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond."

The North Korean nuclear and missile programmes have caused consternation across the world, with the 27 Asean Regional Forum member states also expressing their heightened concerns last week. Joint statements issued during the prime minister's visits to South Korea, Japan and lately the US have also reflected our own concerns.

While denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is desirable, having seen the fate of Iraq and Libya, Kim Jong-un will be reluctant to agree to anything more than a pause in nuclear and missile programmes. A Chinese proposal of temporarily halting US-South Korea large-scale military exercises in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear activities proposed on March 8 may seem attractive to Pyongyang. But while China possibly views this as an intermediate step towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, North Korea may not as it considers that its nuclear capability is essentially for deterrence.

Direct dialogue, even if incremental, involving the US and North Korea without any preconditions seems like the only viable and realistic option. If Tillerson's view prevails, there is a window of opportunity to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.

(The writer is former secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs and has served as Ambassador to Italy, Oman, Thailand and Poland)