With Russia and China saying that negotiations are the only way out, the world needs to evolve a balanced and unified stand to deal with the North Korean nuclear impasse.
The North Korean regime fired its most powerful Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) thus far on 28 November. This was the 20th launch of ballistic missile by North Korea this year and most powerful of the three tests of ICBM, the earlier two having been fired in July. The latest missile went up in the air for a distance of 4,475 kilometres and travelled a distance of 950 kms to fall in the economic exclusive zone of Japan. If the missile had been fired on a standard trajectory instead of on a lofted trajectory, it would have been able to travel a distance of 13,000 kms, thus bringing the whole of United States as well as Europe and Australia within its range. The fresh provocation came after a gap of 10 weeks when the last missile test was conducted and a week after President Donald Trump re-designated North Korea as a terrorist state.
After the test, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared exuberantly that Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had achieved its mission of becoming a nuclear state. Although this is an exaggeration, it is evident that North Korea has registered significant progress and technological sophistication in this sphere over the last few years. For instance, the Hwasong 15 missile fired on 28 November is significantly more powerful than the Hwasong 12 and 14 versions tested by it in July, August and September. The current missile was in the air for about 53 minutes while the earlier ICBMs stayed air-borne for 49 minutes (28 July) and 37 minutes (4 July) respectively.
Moreover, the sixth nuclear test conducted by North Korea on 3 September 2017 had a yield of about 120-250 kilotons as against 10-20 kilotons in the test carried out in September 2016. DPRK has announced that it has mastered the technology to produce a thermonuclear device or hydrogen bomb whose destructive strength is in hundreds of kilotons. As against this, the power of bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was a mere 15 kilotons. American and international scientists, who have been following North Korea’s nuclear-missile development programme, believe that considerable more work is required for DPRK to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to be loaded onto an ICBM for it to accurately hit its target. However, the possession of a lethal weapon in the hands of an unpredictable and maverick dictator is itself a matter of grave concern and anxiety for the region and the world.
Soon after the launch of the latest missile, the North Korean government issued a statement boasting that the regime had “finally realised the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force”. Pyongyang declared that its pursuit of the “strategic weapon” is intended to “defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country from the US imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy.” It emphasised that it would “not pose any threat to any country and region as long as the interests of the DPRK are not infringed upon”.
Responding to a question immediately after the test, Trump said: "We will take care of the situation.’’ Reacting to the launch, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe blasted it as “absolutely intolerable” and called for an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting, which was held the next day. Abe said that Japan will never yield to any provocative act and will maximise pressure on Pyongyang. He announced that Russian and Chinese presidents had confirmed their commitment to applying ‘’maximum pressure" on Pyongyang to change its path.
Both Japan and US want more pressure to be applied on Pyongyang, forcing it to change its behaviour. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, indicated that the path of diplomacy continues to be open. US and Japan feel that China holds the key and must do more. It has become increasingly clear for the last several months that US could be seriously considering the military option. The South Korean president said that there was no option but to keep applying pressure and imposing sanctions.
Both Russia and China feel that negotiations and discussion are the only way out. China's Foreign Ministry expressed "grave concern and opposition" to North Korea's latest missile launch in an unusual rebuke of its neighbour and ally.
It is the assessment of several observers that sanctions have failed and have had no impact on changing the behaviour of North Korean leadership. China feels that more stringent sanctions could result in making Pyongyang even more adventurous and unpredictable. It could also result in untold misery and hardship to the common people in North Korea. Japan does not subscribe to this view saying that DPRK has always capitalised on this sentiment among its adversaries and won generous financial and technological concessions, while surreptitiously continuing to develop its nuclear and missile programmes.
An analysis of the sanctions clearly brings out that they are not being implemented aggressively and hence do not cause significant pain to the North Korean regime. Around 90 per cent of North Korea’s documented trade was with China in 2016. This makes it evident that for any sanction regime to be successful, China will have to play an increasingly crucial role. China, however, appears to be dragging its feet in implementing even those sanctions which have been authorised by the UN Security Council. Over recent years, China’s two-way trade with DPRK has expanded rapidly to reach $6.6 billion in 2016. China has recently taken some measures in compliance with UN resolutions. Beijing announced its intention to restrict trade with Pyongyang on several key items, including textiles, seafood and petroleum products. Chinese administration also banned mainland lenders from doing business with North Korean clients.
However, notwithstanding the sanctions, trade between China and DPRK increased by about 4 per cent in the first nine months of 2017. China’s exports to DPRK during this period increased by 20.9 per cent. Also exports of iron ore, a critical item of DPRK’s export earnings to China increased by 270 per cent in the first two months of this year. China supplies about 500,000 tonnes of crude oil and over 200,000 tonnes of oil products to DPRK every year.
Russia and China have not agreed to a ban on export of crude to DPRK, arguing that this will adversely affect only the impoverished common people of the country and will have no detrimental impact on the leadership of the country. This argument is fallacious as this would imply that no sanctions should be used against the country as all of them will overwhelmingly impact upon the poorer segments of the population. It is necessary to apply sanctions in a manner that will inflict pain on the ruling dispensation by severely curtailing the economic and political flexibility available to it. Tinkering at the edges will not yield any significant result.
Russia has a vested interest in a peaceful solution to the North Korean issue as it shares a 17-kilometre (10-mile) land border with the country and does not want the US to enhance its influence in the region.
China being mindful of its traditional strong relations with DPRK would not like to inflict unbearable pain for fear that it might lead to collapse of the regime. Such an eventuality could result in an alternative regime supportive of US emerge on its border. This would be unacceptable. Regime change in DPRK could also result in exodus of millions of its citizens to China which would put China’s own security, social and political stability in jeopardy. Downfall of Kim Jong-un’s regime could also bring the charge of China being a traitor to the Communist cause. This could also bring the stability and continuity of the Communist regime in China in question.
India has acted rapidly in accordance with UN sanctions to stop all exports to DPRK. Until last year, India’s trade turnover with DPRK was around $200 million with exports of $111 million and imports of around $90 million. This is likely to come down significantly this year as India has stopped all exports of petroleum products which were a major item of export to DPRK. The only items which are still being exported are emergency food supplies and medicines. India is of course a much smaller economic actor in DPRK. It is however a measure of its total support for the United Nations that it has implemented the sanctions in letter and in spirit.
US has stated that it would like India to play a more active role in dealing with the Korean nuclear crisis. India does not enjoy much clout in the country compared to other regional players like China and Russia because of its physical distance. However, it has made it clear in no uncertain terms that it is totally opposed to the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear weapon power. This would have serious security implications for the region and the world particularly because the regime is headed by a maverick, fickle and erratic leader.
Barring military force, future scenarios range from a new round of peace talks at one end of the spectrum, to more hawkish actions like a naval blockade to enforce sanctions – including interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korea weapons abroad, one of the regime’s key sources of income.
The world needs to evolve a balanced and unified stand to deal with the Korean nuclear impasse. A dual-pronged approach of continuing to apply ever more stringent sanctions while keeping the door open for talks is a possible way to reach an optimum, mutually acceptable solution which could ensure regional and global peace and security, and also guarantee North Korea’s liberty, territorial integrity and economic development.
However, this would require mutual trust in each other’s intentions which regrettably is in considerable short supply at this moment. It is however also possible that North Korea desists from conducting any further tests and taking any more provocative actions as it claims that it has ‘’finally realised the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force”. Under these circumstances, stage could be set for some constructive talks between the different protagonists.