With every missile launch, the risk of an armed conflict in North Korea rises a notch – and so it is with Pyongyang’s confirmation that it “successfully” launched another medium-range ballistic missile on Sunday.
The weapon is now ready for military action, according to the state-run KCNA news agency, whose announcement seems to taunt the UN Security Council, which only last Monday warned North Korea to conduct no further missile tests. That demand itself followed a test of what North Korea said was a new type of rocket capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Given the rise in temperature, it’s critical for diplomats to de-escalate the situation. The best way is to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, then get it to scale back its actions on its own in return for the removal of sanctions on a step-by-step basis.
This is how Tehran was encouraged to sign up to denuclearization under Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who had been re-elected shortly before the deal was clinched on July 14, 2015. Despite persistent threats by US President Donald Trump to walk the nuclear agreement back, the deal remains intact and all economic sanctions against Iran have since been lifted.
On the surface, it seems tempting to pursue a similar path with North Korea – pursue talks, then de-escalate on a step-by-step basis, using the removal of sanctions as a carrot rather than the threat of force as a stick.
Yet, unlike Rouhani, Kim Jong-un does not appear interested in de-escalating the situation. On the contrary, he seems to regale in upping the ante time and again.
Most of North Korea’s neighbours have tried to encourage dialogue. Yet even when Kim has been offered more economic aid from China and guarantees from the US not to attempt regime change or reunification with the South, he has appeared oblivious towards actions aimed at bringing him to the negotiating table – as he has when the calls for dialogue come from South Korea and Russia.
Japan is an exception. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hasn’t placed dialogue on the same pedestal as Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin or South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.
To be sure, Japan isn’t insisting on armed retaliation either. But it thinks firmer action – in the form of stricter sanctions, specifically with Chinese backing – would be useful in altering the trajectory of Kim’s behaviour. At least, this appears to be the dominant view in Tokyo.
Either way, Pyongyang isn’t reciprocating the carrots peddled by the great powers, nor is it intimidated by the sticks they wield.
Given this, it’s necessary to delve into Kim’s mind – and that of his top brass – to consider what kind of role these missile launches are playing.
It is as if the Kim regime fetishises the launches. As if watching the missiles rise to the stratosphere before their steady, predictable fall towards the waters separating South Korea and Japan has over time become a strategic addiction.
It’s telling that every successful launch is accompanied by carefully stage managed images showing huge outbursts of joy, not only by a Kim grinning ear to ear, but by the top military brass too – some of whom have the temerity to pat the rotund, overweight Kim on the back when he invigilates.
Such images only underline how total the departure has been from the days of Kim’s father Kim Jong-il, who was careful to cultivate an image of solemnity when attending events of this type.
These images of wild celebrations, of fists pumps and bear hugs, are beamed across the dour country in an effort to get all citizens to partake in the joy of acquiring a potential nuclear deterrent.
In other words, while Pyongyang’s missile programme may once have been aimed chiefly at improving its defences, it has since morphed into a “high”, or a habit that Kim can no longer kick.
It is the only high that Kim can offer his people to counter their lows. And, just like an addict, as the lows of his people get ever lower, so Kim finds he must respond with the only high he knows. Off goes another missile. It is the same cycle of addiction recognisable to addicts the world over.
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Last month, a failed launch threatened to interrupt this cycle, robbing the addict of his high. Yet the speed with which North Korea has managed to launch another missile – this time successfully – suggests there are several teams of scientists in North Korea competing against each other to nurse Kim’s addiction. Thus, within a month, Kim has been able to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.
With this latest launch, he affirmed to his people that “perfect” missiles were “now ready for deployment”.
How then does the international community wean North Korea from such habit-forming behaviour – behaviour that has become a clear threat to the world? In the parlance of those seeking to reform an addict, how can it stage an intervention?
There are four solutions, none of which are perfect. The first is the dialogue and sanctions model that worked with Iran. This is the preferred method of China and South Korea. Under this model, when North Korea begins to dial back its missile and nuclear programmes, sanctions will be eased. As mentioned above, this hasn’t been working so far.
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The second involves the United States outsourcing the solution to China, with the implicit threat that there will be clear consequences for their relationship if Beijing does not perform. This leaves China to come up with the solution – any solution, even if it means taking out the North Korean leadership. Yet, since China is afraid of the sort of chaos that might be unleashed the likelihood of this “solution” working out is low.
The third involves Japan and the United States attacking North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. But this would require targeting potentially up to 1,500 sites and launch pads – a massive action that would invite an equally wild retaliation from North Korea, which would have nothing to lose.
The fourth requires China and Russia to work hand-in-hand in persuading Kim to cease and desist on all nuclear and missile programmes – with the US providing a guarantee that it would recognise North Korea as a state under China and Russia’s responsibility.
One thing seems certain: if North Korea does not seek treatment of its addiction soon, all the bargains and economic teasers that other countries are willing to offer will come to naught.
Instead there will be a war which North Korea cannot avoid.