Sports diplomacy is important. We have seen in the past the efforts of sports politics between the Arab Gulf states and also India and Pakistan, where sports act as a soft power instrument. Importantly, sports politics gives space in a heated environment before lurching back, perhaps to the previous grievances. Unfortunately, that may be the case with North Korea.
Sports diplomacy aside, North Korea remains a threat to its neighbors and the US. The ongoing rogue nature of Kim’s regime is seen in a number of programs whose advances make the region and the world unstable. Last November, Kim declared that North Korea is a nuclear power after testing a ballistic missile that could technically hit the US. Before that, Kim promised more missiles and US President Donald Trump responded that he would bring “fire and fury” to Pyongyang.
By constantly introducing new nuclear and missile technology, North Korea projects its power effectively enough to perhaps warrant a pre-emptive strike from the US. That hard power reality still exists despite international pressure to stop the current escalation. Unless, of course, North Korea just stands down, which is not likely.
North Korea also possesses biological and chemical weapons. The US National Security Strategy accuses it of conducting research into “chemical and biological weapons” that could be delivered by missile. Pyongyang has already used poisons abroad in the tradition of Russian special services. Kim Jong Nam, the leader’s older half-brother, died as a result of a poisoning in the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. In addition, the discovery of anthrax antibodies in a North Korean defector signaled that Pyongyang is developing biological weapons in violation of international law.
In the event of an actual military confrontation involving Pyongyang, planning how to keep biological and chemical weapons contained during an internal North Korean upheaval or a kinetic event is part of any scenario in order to avoid a toxic mess.
Pyongyang is pursuing a naval capability to launch its nuclear missiles, which requires constant attention at Sinpo and Mayang-do ports. It is building the Gorae-class submarine and is testing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This program adds a new dimension to North Korea’s capability.
There is genuine fear about the recklessness of the North Korean state and its disregard for the international community, despite the positive signals regarding the Winter Olympics.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
North Korea continues to benefit from sanctions-busting. It is flouting the UN resolutions by abusing global oil supply chains, foreign nationals, offshore companies and the international banking system. With help from China and Russia, Pyongyang is still able to receive shipments of crude oil and other goods banned by the UN and sanctioned by the US. In truth, China and Russia are helping to generate income that is used to develop weapons of mass destruction and destabilize the region. That type of behavior isn’t acceptable in today’s international disorder. In fact, it’s a disorder multiplier.
North Korea’s cyber capability is robust and growing. Last year, it launched the “WannaCry” cyber-attack that crippled hospitals, banks and other companies, causing billions of dollars of damage. And Pyongyang’s ability to break into South Korean banks and other institutions to steal money or materials is highly advanced and an ambitious and potentially deadly tool, coupled with nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korea’s triad of tools is outside of international legal norms.
There is no evidence to suggest that North Korea has slowed down its efforts on any of the above fronts. One day before the Olympics, DPRK’s military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the army displayed variants of multi-range ballistic missiles to show the world Pyongyang is a world power. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Trump’s State of the Union speech, which featured Fred and Cindy Warmbier — the parents of teenager Otto Warmbier, who was beaten into a coma in a North Korean labor camp and later died — and Ji Seong-Ho, a North Korean defector with one arm and one leg who made a 6,000-mile journey to the South, brought a volley of insults from Pyongyang. “It is no less than the screams of Trump terrified at the power of the DPRK that has achieved the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force and has rapidly emerged as the strategic state recognized by the world,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Clearly, from missile tests to false warnings and from tweets to crutches in the air, optics matter in this confrontation.
North Korea and the US are continuing their trajectory toward confrontation, while Russia and China must stop playing games and take regional responsibilities more seriously. There is genuine fear about the recklessness of the North Korean state and its disregard for the international community and law.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues.