Over the past few days, a cartoon in a Japanese newspaper has gone viral on the internet on the mainland, depicting a fuming US President Donald Trump standing on one side of the American flag of red and white stripes and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the other side. Trump barks, daring Kim to “cross the red line”, to which Kim replies: “Which one?” The cartoon succinctly captures the dangerous showdown not only between Washington and Pyongyang but also Pyongyang and the international community as a whole.
On Sunday, just a few weeks after Trump threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea, the rogue state said it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, the country’s sixth nuclear test and the most powerful so far, creating a magnitude 6.3 tremor felt in China’s northeastern provinces.
US defence secretary Jim Mattis warned it could launch a “massive military response” to threats from North Korea while Trump called North Korea a great threat, warning the US was considering stopping all trade with any country doing business with it. But such escalating threats sound hollow without full support and cooperation from other powers like Russia and particularly China, North Korea’s major ally and supplier of economic aid. While both China and Russia have strongly condemned North Korea’s latest nuclear blast and share the goal of denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula, their basic positions have not changed: that diplomacy and dialogue are still the keys to calming tensions.
The major powers lack a united front on how to deal with North Korea, and Pyongyang knows this only too well.
It has become highly probable that the worst-case scenario will become a stark reality sooner or later: North Korea will become a nuclear state and the international community will eventually be forced to recognise it as such, publicly or otherwise.
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Let’s look at the options available for solving the crisis: military force, sanctions, and talks.
Despite the bellicose bluster from Trump and reports the US military has drafted multiple options for strikes on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, there is no guarantee surgical strikes by the US military would take them all out. Such a move would also invite massive retaliatory artillery attacks from North Korea, leading to enormous casualties in South Korea.
Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, was right when he said in an interview last month there was no viable military option for stopping North Korea’s nuclear programmes.
Besides, China will never consent to the US going it alone on military strikes – if the US did so, it would risk drawing China into the war.
Washington is reportedly working to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea but history shows sanctions are not a deterrent to Pyongyang. Trump has previously blamed China for not trying hard enough but China has legitimate concerns a collapsed regime would bring a refugee crisis and the US military could be deployed right up to its border.
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Trump once dangled trade as an incentive to China to contain North Korea and last Sunday he stepped up the rhetoric by suggesting the US would stop trade with any country that did business with North Korea. The economic implications for the world economy would have been staggering had Washington pursued that option as China is America’s largest trading partner and also the biggest holder of US debt.
Equally, attempts to get North Korea back to the negotiating table are futile.
History also shows Pyongyang has long used the negotiations as a charade to deflect international pressure and buy time for its nuclear programme.
Squeezed among the regional powers and isolated as an outcast from the international community, the Kim family’s sole aim is to preserve the dynasty. To that end, they believe having nuclear weapons is non-negotiable.
The Kims appear to have followed the example of China under Mao Zedong. Mao was determined to develop nuclear weapons in the 1960s – fearing invasion by the US or the then Soviet Union – in the belief China could ensure it would not be bullied only by having the nukes.
China has been backed into a corner. On the one hand, resentment against North Korea is growing, not least because of the proximity of Pyongyang’s nuclear test sites to the Chinese border. As the South China Morning Post reported last week, some Chinese experts fear the mountain under which North Korea’s five most recent bomb tests probably occurred could be at risk of collapsing. If that happened, the radiation could escape and drift across China, leading to a major ecological disaster.
The timing of the latest test was also a major embarrassment for China as it happened on the day President Xi Jinping was hosting a summit in Xiamen of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, along with other Asian, African and Latin American countries, including Mexico and Thailand. Failure to contain its unruly neighbour would not reflect well on China’s quest to become a major world power.
But tightening sanctions over North Korea and risking a collapsed regime would be equally untenable because of reasons discussed earlier. Such a dilemma will continue to stymie the Chinese government.
Given these quandaries, North Korea’s nuclear programme will continue until its status as a nuclear power is recognised. ■
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper