Korean peninsula — dangerous nuclear flashpoint

One expects a showdown between North Korea and United States since their policy statements seem to be guided by irrational impulses rather than rational calculations

Korean peninsula — dangerous nuclear flashpoint

“If he utters one threat, in the form of an overt threat, which by the way he has been uttering for years, and his family has been uttering for years, or if he does anything with respect to Guam, or any place else that's an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast." U.S President Donald Trump.

Since July 28 when North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and the threat of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that his country will target Guam, an America naval base, with nuclear weapons if attacked by the U.S, intensive "war of words" between the two countries seems to escalate conflict in the Korean peninsula. Trump reacted to North Korean threats by his stern warning that "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen."

Since 1994 when U.S-North Korean nuclear conflict began till today, efforts to restrain Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions failed. North Korea not only left Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in January 2003 but augmented its proliferation drive to the extent that recently it claimed to have tested ICBM's capable of targeting the U.S mainland with nuclear weapons. The U.N Security Council retaliated on August 5 by imposing fresh sanctions on North Korea thus further deepening its economic predicament. Consequently, the world saw the worsening of security situation in North East Asia when South Korea and Japan along with the United States, discussed measures to counter predictable nuclear strike from North Korea. The ongoing tug of war between the U.S and North Korea should be taken seriously as it is for the first time that after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 that the world is reaching the brink of a nuclear conflict. It is argued by analysts on the U.S-North Korean nuclear conflict that the more Pyongyang is economic and militarily coerced, the more the Stalinist regime will react out of frustration and insecurity.

Two realities tend to give credence as far as dangerous situation in the Korean Peninsula is concerned. First, irrationality on the part of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un while dealing with the present crisis. Both are involved in brinkmanship without realizing serious implications. If Kim Jong Un has threatened to put the sea of Japan in flames and target Guam with ballistic missiles, Trump has retaliated by threatening North Korea with 'fire and fury' and military solutions of "locked and loaded." The U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did try to put some cold water on Trump offensive against North Korea when he endorsed dialogue as the option and telling Pyongyang that "we are not your enemy."

Yet the hawkish mindset in White House and Pentagon is a cause of serious concern for those who view crisis and conflict in the Korean Peninsula moving into a dangerous direction. Trump was severely criticized by the members of Congress of what they termed as reckless and irresponsible. Senate Democratic Party Leader Charles Schumer called the President's comments "reckless", while the House of Representatives' senior Democratic leader termed the rhetoric as "belligerent." Likewise, Republican Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee stated that "great leaders he has seen don't threaten unless they're ready to act. And I am sure President Trump is not ready to act."

North Korea must be told by the UN Security Council that the option of regime change will be exercised by further tightening of sanctions if it crosses the red line and threatens to use nuclear weapons against its adversaries 

When irrationality is reflected in state policies as is the case with North Korea and the United States, one can expect a showdown. Simulation exercises are being conducted in American strategic think tanks and in Pentagon to assess physical damage which will be caused if North Korean nuclear installations are liquidated and the possible retaliation by Pyongyang against South Korea, Japan, Guam and the U.S. mainland takes place. Washington seems to be confident that its edge in technology will enable it to destroy incoming North Korean missiles thus preventing any nuclear attack.

Second, China and Russia, as having age-old ties with North Korea are unable to check their erstwhile communist neighbour to exercise nuclear restraint. Donald Trump released his frustration on China when he asserted that, "I am very disappointed in China. Our past foolish leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars in trade, yet they do nothing for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem." Beijing sharply reacted to Trump's allegations to be only cooled down when in a phone call last week with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping asked him to exercise restraint so as to peacefully manage the crisis.

The way out of the dangerous nuclear standoff in the Korean Peninsula is the pursuance of two pronged strategy by the major stakeholders particularly United States, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. First, North Korea must be communicated by the UN Security Council that if it crosses the red line by threatening to use nuclear weapons against its adversaries, the option of regime change will be exercised by further tightening sanctions. Instead of Trump style threats to annihilate North Korea, soft measures culminating into regime change will be useful. Second, diplomacy and dialogue should be given another chance by pursuing Russia and China to play a major role so that the ongoing crisis in the Korean Peninsula is managed. As rightly mentioned on August 5th issue of London Economist "It could happen" that, "to contain Mr. Kim, America and its allies should apply pressure that cannot be misconstrued as a declaration of war."


Dr Moonis Ahmar is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi. E. Mail: amoonis@hotmail.com



Published in Daily Times, August 19th 2017.