North Korea: a disaster in waiting

North Korea: a disaster in waiting

Sometimes one gets the feeling that the world is on the edge of a disaster. One miscalculated adventure by the US or North Korea holds a real prospect of a nuclear confrontation. Where it might end or how it might end is anybody’s guess. But the dreaded nuclear Armageddon is no longer outside the realm of possibility.

The Korean crisis is nothing new, but the current gravity of the issue is unprecedented. At its genesis is the acute fear and paranoia of the ruling Kim dynasty that the US is hell-bent to overthrow the regime. And that the only thing standing in its way is Pyongyang’s growing nuclear deterrence, with the clear signals that North Korea will not hesitate to respond with its nuclear and conventional weaponsto inflict maximum damage on the US and its allies: South Korea and Japan.

To give credence to its intent, Pyongyang has been undertaking more and more nuclear and missile tests. And with the US nuclear armada circling the Korean peninsula, joined by Japanese naval ships and an array of military exercises between the US, South Korea and Japan, one can imagine the fear and hysteria of the Kim regime. If one stretches the imagery a bit further, a real military confrontation between the two sides might not seem improbable.

The US is signalling that it is keeping its options open, diplomatic as well as military, to influence on Pyongyang that, short of denuclearization, it has no real alternative. It is blowing hot and cold, with President Trump keeping up the military pressure reinforced with a recent strong message from Admiral Harry Harris, who heads the US Pacific Command.

He reportedly said, “In confronting the reckless North Korean regime, it’s critical that we’re guided by a strong sense of resolve.” While conceding that North Korean retaliation to any US strike could cause many casualties in South Korea, he added that there was the risk “of a lot more Koreans, Japanese and Americans dying if North Korea achieves its nuclear aims and does what [North Korea] has said it’s going to do.” In other words, going by what Admiral Harris said, a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, admittedly with its many resultant casualties, might be preferable to letting North Korea perfect its nuclear and missile arsenal.

However, even to consider such a war is beyond any rational thinking, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, dying from it. And when this is posited with Pyongyang’s declaration that it would react to “a total war” with the United States with a nuclear war – it is sheer madness.

An important part of the US strategy is to ramp up the pressure on China to bring the Kim regime to its senses by denying it fuel, food and trade outlets. China appears to be tightening some of the screws but, according to reports, the trade between the two countries has actually gone up. Beijing seems to be assuring Washington that it is doing all it can whilecounselling restraint on the US, fearing that matters could easily get out of control with disastrous consequences. It favours negotiations and is seeking to prevail on the US to move away from military manoeuvres with South Korea and Japan that appear to Pyongyang as part of an imminent attack on the country.

At the same time, North Korea is being pressured not to go ahead with a nuclear test and missile testing.

A temporary easing of the situation might lie in the US easing on its military movements and North Korea halting its nuclear and missile testing. The time, thus bought, might be used to prepare ground for more in-depth negotiations.

The US though would want North Korea to denuclearise first, at least freeze its nuclear program, before any negotiations. The US worry is that unless Pyongyang agrees to renounce its nuclear ambitions beforehand, any diplomatic parleys will only give North Korea more time to perfect its nuclear and missile capability to be even more dangerous at a later date.

In other words, there is deep distrust on both sides, and unless that distrust is bridged, both sides might hurtle into a deadly confrontation with massive casualties. This is where China comes in but, from all the accounts that are emerging of Beijing doing its bits and more, it is only making Pyongyang more adamant that its security and survival depends on its nuclear deterrence.

Another dimension of this crisis is that China is strongly opposed to the deployment of the US anti-missile defence system in Seoul designed to protect South Korea from a North Korean attack. In China’s view, this will expose it to the US surveillance and containment. Beijing is now engaged in punishing South Korea by trade sanctions of sorts by curbing imports from that country.

This is going to become a serious issue as time goes by, unless the newly elected South Korean president, who favours engagement with Pyongyang, is able to prevail upon the US to withdraw the newly installed missile defence system. This can resultin complications in US-South Korea relations. And considering that South Korea is almost totally dependent on a US security umbrella against an unpredictable North Korean regime, Seoul might not have much leeway in the matter. There are, therefore, no clear signs of any breakthrough on the Korean question in the foreseeable future, even as the threat of a major conflict is ever present.

The only time that a possible way out seemed to have been attempted was under the Clinton administration in the 1990s when North Korea was reportedly promised two nuclear reactors, under strict safeguards, for power generation. In the interim, it was to receive fuel oil.

As part of the deal, North Korea allowed American technicians to remove and safely dispose of irradiated fuel rods from its Yongbyon technicians. But when the promised deal was not implemented, Pyongyang sent the US technicians packing, walked away from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and went ahead with its nuclear weapons programme.

Since then, North Korea has hunkered down and become even convinced that its only way of survival is building and perfecting its nuclear armoury.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney. He can be reached at