Thursday,24 May, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Thursday,24 May, 2018
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

America’s dilemmas in Northeast Asia

While Security Council members support the American position on the North Korean nuclear programme, they are split on whether force can be used to resolve the North Korean crisis, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Sunday, 3 September, the world woke to the detonation of a nuclear bomb by North Korea, the first since President Donald Trump took office nine months ago, and the sixth nuclear test carried out by the North Koreans since the first back in 2006. The latest nuclear test came in the midst of American uncertainties on how to deal with the avowed determination of Pyongyang to possess nuclear weapons and be able to put them on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to target, according to the North Korean government, the continental United States.

Prior to the latest test, intelligence services as well as North Korea observers were not unanimous on how far advanced the North Korean nuclear programme was. With the September test, there is no longer doubt that the North Koreans have achieved great progress in this respect. Similarly, they have made remarkable progress in perfecting their arsenal of ICBMs. Days before their latest nuclear test, they targeted Japan with one of these missiles, in an act of defiance to the United States and as a message to both the Japanese and the South Koreans that Pyongyang has the military capabilities to attack them, if need be. In other words, the intended message is that of deterrence, passed to Tokyo and Seoul. And this is another factor that complicates American calculations in dealing with the growing threat of a nuclear North Korea.

The United States finds itself between a rock and a hard place. One of the most important objectives of American diplomacy in this part of the world is to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear weapons free. All permanent members of the UN Security Council share American concerns and support the American position in this respect. The problem is how to achieve such a goal that presupposes, of course, willingness on the part of the North Korean regime to stop its nuclear programme. The former six-power talks that had started during the Clinton administration were a serious attempt on the part of the world community to address the issue, but despite some progress the talks failed in 2005, and Pyongyang resumed its nuclear programme with the first nuclear test in 2006. Neither the Bush administration nor the Obama White House succeeded in encouraging the North Koreans to go back to the negotiating table. The coming to power of Kim Jong-Un has complicated the situation on the Korean Peninsula. It is difficult to fathom the true intentions of the young leader. Is he determined to turn his country into a nuclear power? Or is he trying to position himself into a much stronger negotiating position than that of his late father, if and when the six-power talks resume? It is difficult to tell. His intentions should be gauged carefully by the United States with the help of the Chinese. When the Security Council adopted its Resolution 2371 on 5 August 2017, imposing more sanctions on North Korea after its ballistic launch 28 July, the North Korean government denounced the sanctions and reiterated, in an official statement, its previous stance that it would never place its nuclear programme on the negotiating table as long as the United States maintains a hostile policy against the North. And to add that, “There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean.”

The Foreign Minister of North Korea Ri Yong Ho, while attending an Asian regional security conference held in Manila early August, made a statement Monday, 7 August, in which he rejected assertions by some Security Council members that his country’s military programmes constituted a global threat. He pointed out that they were, instead, a legitimate option for self-defence in the face of what he described as a “clear and real nuclear threat posed by the United States”. And if the United States attacks North Korea, his country is “ready to teach the United States a severe lesson with its nuclear strategic force”. He assured both South Korea and Japan, implicitly, when he said that “other countries were not being threatened unless they joined the United States in a military attack”.

The essential question in these times of unprecedented uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula is whether the United States has formulated a strategy to deal with all contingencies. As far as the military options are concerned, no one doubts American capacities in this regard. However, resorting to the use of force is fraught with dangers. In case the Americans would take out North Korean nuclear installations, the retaliation of North Korea would wreak havoc in Japan and South Korea. According to military estimates, a military attack by the North Koreans against Seoul would cause the death of hundreds of thousands, let alone the destruction of major industrial centres in South Korea. Such a scenario would pit the United States against both China and Russia, and the two powers have made it clear they are against the use of force against the North and believe that diplomacy is the only acceptable option to deal with the North Korean nuclear and ballistic programmes.

In one of his tweets in August, President Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” if it would ever pose a direct threat to the United States. The tweet raised alarm across the globe. Senator Lindsay Graham said that President Trump had told him that the continued development of an intercontinental missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States mainland would lead to war between the two countries. However, high-level administration officials have assuaged the fears of the international community that Washington would resort to military power to settle differences with the North. On 6 September, members of the United States Congress were briefed in a closed briefing by American officials, including Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Danford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. After the briefing, Senator Chris Murphy said that the high administration officials “are laying out a relatively sensible strategy... They are talking about a diplomacy-first strategy…”

It is only wise and far-sighted that Washington adopt such a strategic posture that combines military deterrence with a willingness to engage the North Koreans diplomatically, while strengthening and upgrading the military forces of both Japan and South Korea in an exercise of counter-deterrence to North Korea. In this context, the United States and South Korea are to address bolstering the missile capabilities of South Korea at the annual Republic of Korea-United States Security Consultative Meeting next month.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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