The North Korean leader then seemed to postpone the attack near Guam, but said he could change his mind in face of “Yankee” provocations. Soon thereafter, the top US military officer, Gen Joseph Dunford, promised an “iron-clad commitment” to defend Japan. A worried Chinese president Xi Jinping called on all parties to “exercise restraint.”
The US and North Korea entered into solid agreements in the 1990s, when the latter agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in return for US support for its civilian nuclear program and massive humanitarian and development assistance.
However, in 2002, when President George Bush included North Korea in the “axis of evil” and rescinded the 1994 agreement, the country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. As US sanctions became more tough, North Korea tested its first nuclear device in 2006, and carried out further tests in 2013 and 2016. It is believed to have fissionable material for about 20 nuclear devices.
Since Pyongyang will never give up its nuclear weapons, it must be persuaded that regime change is not an option for world powers.
North Korea has also steadily developed its delivery capabilities. There are indications that, by 2019, it could possess ICBMs able to reach continental US. This will dramatically shift US priorities from concerns relating to its allies in Northeast Asia to the defense of the homeland.
This possible shift has already led Japan to focus on augmenting its own capabilities by significantly increasing its defense expenditure and developing a land-based missile defense system, besides funding enhanced maritime security capabilities in the Eastern Atlantic. The US and South Korea commenced their joint annual military exercises from August 21. North Korea has described this year’s exercise as “pouring gasoline on fire,” while its official mouthpiece has warned of an “uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.”
These exercises, codenamed “Ulchi-Freedom Guardian” and involving ten nations and 80,000 soldiers, are the world’s largest, and simulate computerised command and control actions in the event of an attack from North Korea. The latter views them as an aggression, particularly since “decapitation strikes” are rehearsed to target the country’s leader and top generals.
In response to the North Korean threat to reduce Tokyo to debris, Japan is conducting massive exercises of its own.
So far, four days since the exercises started, there has been no vitriolic rhetoric from the North Korean leader, leading Trump to suggest that “something positive” could still come out of the recent exchanges. But North Korea has also released photographs indicating it is working on a new more powerful ICBM that could reach any place on the US mainland. Commentators believe North Korea may also have miniature nuclear devices to be fitted into its ballistic missiles.
Thus, the threat of conflict embracing the US, South Korea and Japan remains and could include the use of nuclear weapons. This would have horrendous consequences, inflicting casualties and destruction not seen since the Second World War.
The rapid development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems by North Korea has fundamentally transformed the regional strategic landscape and has ensured that a military option is not feasible; defusing the crisis and engaging with North Korea is the only realistic option on the table.
In this regard, the US and its allies would need to note that, whatever China’s irritations with North Korea and its irascible leader, it will not abandon its ally: China opposes regime change in Pyongyang, since it would not like to see a pro-West administration in that country and, possibly, US troops at its border.
Again, de-nuclearization of North Korea is no longer an option; the most that could be achieved is a nuclear cap-and-freeze arrangement. But this would itself require prolonged and painful negotiations, which would need to overcome the deep mutual distrust and address the core concern of North Korea that relates to the threat it senses from the West to its regime and its sovereign status. Thus, North Korea will insist on cast-iron guarantees relating to its security, including the suspension of the annual military exercises.
Finally, the US would have no option but to deal directly with North Korea, jointly with China. For this to happen, the US would need to see China as a genuine partner and coordinate positions with it after long and in-depth discussions, which would involve give-and take on both sides, not just a full endorsement of US positions and interests.
However, as of now it is doubtful that the Trump presidency is ready to replace its characteristic verbosity and brinkmanship with the sophisticated diplomatic effort that the regional tensions call for.
• Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at Symbiosis International University, Pune