THE two successful test firings of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) by North Korea on July 4 has added a new dimension to the crisis in the Korean peninsula. President Donald Trump had pledged after taking over that he would not allow Pyongyang to gatecrash into the elite club of nations possessing this kind of missile technology under his watch. “It won't happen”, Trump had tweeted in January. He followed it up by stating that North Korea “is a problem, a problem that will be taken care of”, leading some commentators to speculate that Trump was weighing immediate military options against the country. During his meeting with China's president, Xi Jinping, Trump said that the United States will take care of the North Korea problem if the Chinese side is incapable of doing so.
But in less than seven months into his presidency, the North Koreans have conducted an array of successful missile tests. Many of the missile tests conducted last year had failed for a variety of reasons. The North seems to have more than made up for those failures this year. Washington and Tokyo have now reluctantly acknowledged that Pyongyang now has the capability to hit parts of mainland America and that their intermediate range missiles can easily target the American military bases in Japan and Guam. North Korea has now joined a dozen or more countries in the world that have long range missile capabilities.
The timing of the launch which coincided with America's independence day on July 4, was not a coincidence. Kim Jong-un called it a “gift” to the USA. “As a proud nuclear power that possesses not only nuclear weapons but also the most powerful ICBM that can target any part of the world, North Korea will root out the United States threat and blackmail of nuclear war and solidly defend the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region”, the statement from North Korean government said.
At the beginning of his term, Trump had militarily threatened the North by emphasising again and again that “all options were open” against the country. In June, he had dispatched an American naval armada, consisting of aircraft carriers and submarines streaming towards the Korean peninsula. But as most observers of the region had predicted, the North did not blink. In the first week of June, the North had successfully tested land to sea cruise missiles. In February, it had successfully launched the Pugkusong-2 medium range missile. Pyongyang is claiming that its long and medium range missiles are nuclear capable and that it has miniaturised its nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon as well as experts in Seoul and Tokyo have doubted this claim but they realise that it is only a matter of time for the North Korean scientists to achieve this goal too.
President Trump in a telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart after the North Korean ICBM launch, once again warned that the United States would be willing to take unilateral action if Beijing is not able to reign in Pyongyang. The Trump administration then went ahead and imposed sanctions on a leading Chinese Bank for having dealing with the North Korean government. Then Washington announced the sale of weapons worth $1.4 billion to Taiwan and branded China as a “human trafficker”. China did issue a statement condemning the missile test stating that it violated United Nations Security Council Resolutions. However Beijing has not instituted even more harsher sanctions on North Korea that the United States is demanding that it impose on its already impoverished neighbour.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in a statement issued immediately after the North Korean test launch urged all the parties involved in the Korean dispute to remain calm stressing that the situation in the region “is complicated and sensitive”. The last thing China wants is a war on its doorstep and American troops on its borders. China shares a long border with the North. Besides, Beijing is aware that Washington and Tokyo are using the North Korea card to militarily surround it. The recent stealthy installation of the Thaad anti missile system in South Korea is an illustration. China has demanded that the system be removed at the earliest. The newly elected South Korean president, Moon Jae-in had strongly voiced his opposition against its installation on the campaign trail.
After a meeting between President Xi and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin in the first week of July in Moscow, the two countries issued a joint statement calling on the major parties involved in the Korean peninsula to sign up to a Chinese drafted de-escalation plan. The plan envisages a moratorium on North Korean ballistic missile programme coupled with a freeze the frequent joint military exercises and missile tests the US military conducts with the South Korean army. “The situation in the region affects the national interests of both the countries”, the joint statement issued by the two countries said. “Russia and China will work closely to advance a solution to the complex problem of the Korean peninsula in every possible way”. In the same declaration, Moscow and Beijing called for the removal of the Thaad missile systems from the Korean peninsula. The statement accused the United States of using the North Korean issue as an excuse to further its military infrastructure in the region and change the balance of power in the region. “The deployment of Thaad will cause serious harm to the strategic security interests of regional states, including Russia and China”, the statement said.
President Putin in an interview with the Tass news agency said that it was in the mutual interests of Moscow and Beijing that “there is a comprehensive resolution of the problem of the Korean peninsula in order to preserve lasting peace and stability in Northeastern Asia”. Moscow and Beijing in the joint statement urged the “confronting parties” to sit down for talks and agree on the principles of non-confrontation and a pledge to make the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the document stressed that the international community should take into consideration “the sensible concerns” of the North.
The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, said in the second week of July that he is willing to meet for talks with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Moon made this dramatic offer at a time when the American president is calling for a military response. Moon made this offer in a speech he made in Germany. He was among the world leaders present at the G-20 summit there. Moon proposed that the reunion of long separated families from the North and the South should restart again. He also called for the demilitarisation of the border between the two countries. At present, the border between the two is the most heavily weaponised in the world. Seoul, the South Korean capital, is within artillery range of North Korean guns. The South Korean president, who had promised to pursue peace talks with the North, while on the campaign trail, said that sanctions should only be used as a tool to get the North back to the negotiating table. Washington has been using “sanctions” as a weapon to induce regime change in Pyongyang.
While running for the presidency, Trump had told a reporter that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un and “do a deal”. He still has not completely ruled out a meeting with the North Korean leader “under certain circumstances”. But right now, the American president is adopting a belligerent position, boasting that he is handling North Korea “very well, very firmly” without diplomacy. Ordinary South Koreans are worried about the war jargon the American president routinely uses. Any attack on the North would evoke an immediate response. Much of the collateral damage will be borne by South Korea and Japan. Nearly half of South Korea's population lives less than 100km from the border with the North.
America had once considered a “surgical strike” on a North Korean reactor in 1994. But better sense prevailed after the Clinton administration realised that it would lead to open hostilities resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The Clinton administration in its last years had focused on finding a diplomatic solution. A breakthrough with the North seemed imminent after the then secretary of state, Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang. The advent of George W Bush and the “war on terror” brought the situation back to square one on the Korean peninsula. The North was put in the so called “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq and on the list for regime change.
After the ICBM test, Washington despite Trump's tough rhetoric, may have to put the military option on the back burner for the foreseeable future. James Mattis, the American defence secretary, recently said that a war with North Korea “would be tragic on an unbelievable scale”. North Korea is now a de facto nuclear power with the relevant delivery weapons. Many prominent Americans, like the former president, Jimmy Carter, have been urging a negotiated settlement with Pyongyang for a long time. The basic demand of the North is diplomatic recognition by Washington and the signing of a comprehensive peace treaty containing a guarantee that they will not be attacked by the United States. The North had once disavowed its nuclear ambitions in exchange for nuclear reactors from the West and economic aid. It was only after Washington reneged on its commitment that Pyongyang chose its current course. It knows that a nuclear deterrent is the best guarantee against regime change.