North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests defy the US, the cold war’s end, and simple solutions
John Barry Kotch says the two Koreas are burdened by a cold-war-era division that they, unlike the people of Germany or Vietnam, have yet to resolve. And a resolution that satisfies China and the US remains elusive
North Korea’s response to President Trump’s “fire and fury” threat was not long in coming. By sending an intermediate-range missile hurtling over Japan, defying Trump’s “It won’t happen!” tweet from January, the North left the American president with egg on his face.
A day later, Kim Jong-un doubled down with Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test, a blast roughly 10 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. And, on Friday, North Korea fired another missile that flew over Japan’s northern Hokkaido, landing in the Pacific Ocean.
What does Kim Jong-un want? Power, prestige, leverage – or all three? If Kim’s goal is merely regime survival, pushing the envelope is a strange and self-defeating way of demonstrating it – endangering, not protecting his regime.
For the moment, we are witness to an exhibition of high-stakes shadowboxing. Who will draw first blood will be decided “in the moment”, based on the range and trajectory of a future missile launch. Here, the operative word is proportional.
Should Kim be so foolish as to launch a missile in the proximity of Guam, he can expect an American Tomahawk missile to splash down off the east coast of North Korea in response. However, at the other end of the spectrum, if a missile were to hit Guam itself, whether intentional or inadvertent, all bets are off, including the armistice. In short, a US response would be governed by the nature of the provocation and cannot be predicted in advance.
More fundamentally, are we dealing here with a Bismark, for whom the goal of nuclear diplomacy is to alter geopolitics on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia to Pyongyang’s advantage or alternatively, or is it blackmail bent on driving a wedge between the US and its allies, South Korea and Japan? Whichever, Kim has shown himself to be a leader not to be trifled with.
North Korea threatens to ‘sink’ Japan and reduce US to ‘ashes and darkness’ in response to latest UN sanctions
Korea is not two countries – divided north and south – but a single political entity controlled by two rival regimes for nearly 70 years, a product of the failure of the Soviet Union and the United States to create a unified Korean government following Korea’s liberation after the second world war.
Having consolidated power with the assistance of the two foreign powers; the US in the South and the former Soviet Union in the North, Korea’s faction-driven political elites clashed in civil war whose destructive legacy even the 2000 North-South Pyongyang summit could not overcome.
By contrast, in both Vietnam and Germany, the other two nations divided by the cold war, there was closure. In the former, the political elite, a nationalist-communist amalgam led by Ho Chi Minh, defeated a series of rival South Vietnamese leaders sponsored by foreign powers, first French-trained then American-trained Vietnamese military leaders. In the latter, the political elites in east and west Germany recognised and respected each other based on a cold war political modus vivendi, ending only with the end of the cold war itself in 1990.
Without closure, political stability in Korea remains beyond reach. Meanwhile, the military option in confronting the North Korean nuclear challenge is judged too costly while the acceptance of a North Korean nuclear capability has been ruled out by successive US presidents as too risky. That leaves negotiations, with the goal of freezing and/or eliminating the North’s nuclear and missile programmes but which Pyongyang has thus far rejected.
Nor can China be relied upon to resolve the problem via sanctions. On the one hand, Beijing may not enjoy the requisite leverage while, on the other, it may not wish to be seen as executing an American policy initiative. Finally, sanctions taken to the limit could cause the North to implode.
In the absence of a clear path forward, Henry Kissinger has argued that in the event of a North Korean collapse, a coincidence of interests would exist between the US and China in eliminating the North’s nuclear and missile programme, provided Washington and Beijing can agree on what would replace the regime in the North and the ground rules for a future US political and military role on the peninsula.
Reconfiguring the geopolitical map would almost certainly involve the negotiation of a peace treaty formally ending the Korean war by replacing the Armistice Agreement, establishing diplomatic relations which Washington has previously conditioned on ending the North’s nuclear programme as well as Pyongyang regularising relations with Seoul.
Nor can the future presence of US forces in South Korea be excluded, although the US has always maintained that it is strictly a bilateral matter between the US and South Korea as sovereign states. (Tellingly, policy planning documents during the Nixon-Kissinger administration conditioned the future presence of US forces on the peninsula “as the security situation stabilised.”)
Still it’s a stretch to believe that the two current outside powers, the US and China, can negotiate security arrangements over the head of the two Koreas. But even if history can be stretched to accommodate Chinese and American interests on the Korean peninsula, or at least paper over the differences so that the two countries would have more to gain by working together, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Seoul and Pyongyang, for whom the goal of Korean unification is paramount, would agree. What are the prospects for encouraging them to implement decades-old, albeit moribund, agreements on conventional and nuclear arms if the North remains the “revolutionary base” dedicated to the liberation of the South, its goose-stepping cadres on display in Pyongyang’s main square?
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant