Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump and North Korea

The North Korean issue has been simmering for years. But now it appears to be reaching boiling point, with no way of turning back, writes Ahmed Qandil


Trump  and  North Korea
Trump and North Korea

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Never before has the North Korean threat garnered so much attention as it did in last week’s UN General Assembly meetings. The important annual event in New York threw into relief how sharply divided world leaders are over how best to handle Pyongyang’s persistence in developing its nuclear and missile programmes, even if the international community agreed, in August and September, to impose new sanctions against the North Korean regime. In the UN debates, China and Russia, North Korea’s strongest supporters, reiterated their appeals for negotiations, arguing that the military option that Trump brandished would be “catastrophic”. President Trump, in his address to the General Assembly, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if what he described as the “suicidal”, “corrupt” and “evil” regime endangered the US or any of its allies. He also took a personal swipe at North Korean President Kim Jong-un whom he dubbed “Rocket Man” on a suicide mission for himself and his regime. He called on the UN’s members to isolate Pyongyang until it ceases its aggressive behaviour.

The North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho hit back with a stinging retort in his speech to the General Assembly last week. He called Trump “a mentally deranged person full of megalomania” and stressed that it was the US president who posed the greatest threat to peace in the world today. Ri also lashed out at the sanctions passed by the UN Security Council. He described them as illegal and a reflection of the domination of the interests and wishes of the permanent members of the Security Council. All of these members possess nuclear weapons and have an interest in safeguarding their nuclear monopoly, he said.

In tandem with the war of words between the US and North Korea at the UN headquarters, Washington upped its military and economic pressures on Pyongyang. In a display of military muscle flexing, US B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by F-15 Eagle fighter jets flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea last Saturday. The flight was the farthest north of the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea that any US fighter jet or bomber has flown in the 21st century. “This mission is a demonstration of US resolve and a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat,” said Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White. It was the first aerial show of force since North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on 3 September and tested two midrange ballistic missiles over Japan.

On the economic front, as a follow through on the sanctions package passed by the UN Security Council on 12 September, Trump signed an executive order 21 September expanding his authority to target people and institutions that fund and facilitate trade with North Korea. Also that day he announced that China’s central bank had instructed Chinese banks to strictly implement UN sanctions and he thanked President Xi Jinping for what he called a “bold” and “somewhat unexpected” move. Beijing has not confirmed Trump’s claim.

The EU is also expected to introduce new sanctions against North Korea when EU foreign ministers convene 16 October. The EU package will prohibit any European country from exporting oil to North Korea or investing in that country. It will blacklist North Korean officials and further lower the ceiling on cash transfers to North Korea. The limit currently stands at 15,000 Euros. It may also reduce the numbers of North Korean workers in the EU of whom an estimated 300 to 500 are working in Poland.

 Washington and its European and Asian allies hope that the tougher sanctions would assert enough pressure to compel Pyongyang to relinquish its military programme. However, this does not appear likely in view of that regime’s repeated assertions that it will continue its efforts to develop its nuclear and missile capacities in order to “deter the US’s aggressive policies”. It stressed that it will not repeat former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s and former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi’s “mistake” of caving into US pressures to abandon their nuclear programmes.

Many observers believe that Washington will not resort to the military option in the short to mid-term in view of the lack of support for that option among all other major world powers. In addition, the US most likely would not be able to deliver enough strikes to take out all of North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, which are diffuse and hidden in different mountainous areas. Unless the US can destroy all those sites, 10 million people in Seoul, 38 million people in Japan and tens of thousands of US military personnel in northeast Asia could be vulnerable to attacks by North Korea’s remaining conventional or nuclear warheads. Observers also argue that in the event of a limited US strike, Pyongyang might construe this as a prelude to larger and more destructive attacks in which case Kim Jong-un might unleash nuclear weapons against South Korean, Japanese or US military bases in the region.

Such potential risks make negotiating with Pyongyang the only sensible course in order to avert a dangerous setback to the international community’s drive to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to forestall the possibility that North Korea, at some point in the future, could trade the products of its nuclear and missile programmes with other rogue states, such as Iran, or with terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, in order to obtain hard currency. Many analysts maintain that the US and North Korea should enter into direct talks as soon as possible in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. They believe that Washington can lure Pyongyang to the negotiating table by offering “security guarantees” such as commitments not to try to push for regime change in North Korea or to unify the Korean peninsula through military force. Unfortunately, this option now seems remote, especially since both Washington and Pyongyang have snubbed the “double freeze” initiative jointly proposed by Russia and China in order to defuse the crisis. According to the plan, presented by the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers 4 July, North Korea would cease all further missile launches and nuclear tests while Washington and Seoul would cease large-scale military exercises.

With that safety valve ignored and the current rhetorical and propaganda escalation, the situation in East Asia remains very precarious.

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