Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Does Pyongyang want dialogue?

The latest missile test by North Korea has some analysts predicting war. But perhaps Pyongyang is simply setting terms for a dialogue it desires, writes Hussein Haridy

Early Wednesday, 29 November, North Korea  — after a lull that lasted almost two months — launched a new long-range missile, the Hwasong-15. Experts called it the biggest and most advanced missile tested by the North Koreans so far. This new long-range missile came with a domestically-made mobile launcher, which makes it difficult to target for pre-emptive strikes in a future war with the United States and its East Asian allies, namely South Korea and Japan. The lull in the missile tests had been interpreted by some North Korean watchers as a positive sign that Pyongyang could be open to talks. The test on 29 November all but dashed hopes for a diplomatic opening soon to one of the gravest international crises facing not only the United States, but also the other major powers, Russia, China and Japan.

The consensus among military experts is that North Korea has made a jump in missile capability with its latest missile test. Since Kim Jong-Un came to power in 2011 he has presided over 86 missile launches out of a total of 117 missile tests in all. Pyongyang said that the Hwasong-15 could be armed with a “super-large heavy nuclear head”, and is capable of striking the “whole mainland of the United States”. Moreover, the North Korean government made clear that it mastered nuclear strike capability and thus, became a fully-fledged nuclear state. The government statement went on to stress that North Korea had finally realised “the great historic cause” of adding “nuclear force” to the arsenal of the state. Commenting on this serious escalation on the Korean Peninsula, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pointed out that, “If North Korea completes a ballistic missile that could reach from one continent to another, the situation can spiral out of control.” That is to say, from Asia to North America.

The question on everyone’s mind in the wake of this missile test is how the administration of President Donald Trump will respond to this latest challenge from what the American president called “Little Rocket Man” in his opening remarks before the UN General Assembly last September. In other words, what are the options available for the United States to deal with the growing regional challenges in North East Asia and the Korean Peninsula? This part of the world has become, undoubtedly, the most volatile in the world. It would remain so, I am afraid, so long as the confrontation between the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and North Korea, on the other hand, persists. In this confrontation, the North Koreans do stand alone as long as the Americans do not opt for the use of force against Pyongyang. Otherwise, the dynamics would change and both Russia and China, particularly the latter, would side with the latter.

It was not a surprise to hear US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Nick Haley addressing an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, 29 November evening warning that North Korea’s leadership “would be utterly destroyed if war were to break out”. The council unanimously passed a new resolution aimed at setting “limits on exports of crude oil and fuel products to Pyongyang. It also aims to cap North Korea’s imports of gasoline, heavy fuel, diesel and other refined products at two million barrels annually. They actually stand at about 8.5 million. Ambassador Haley told the emergency meeting of the Security Council that, “We know the main driver of North Korea’s nuclear production is oil.” And she accused China of not enforcing existing sanctions against North Korea, despite the fact that there are persistent press reports, quoting diplomatic sources, that China could be ready to go along with new sanctions. 

The Chinese reaction to both the missile rest and the American response was to express the hope “that all relevant parties could help promote dialogue to resolve the issue,” while emphasising the fact that Beijing “was gravely concerned,” concerning the launching of the Hwasong-15.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Friday, 1 December, while on a visit to Rome, that “If someone really wants to use force to… destroy North Korea… then I think that is playing with fire and a big mistake.”

President Trump tweeted 29 November that he spoke with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, about “North Korea’s provocative actions” and vowed additional major sanctions against North Korea. He had in mind the oil sanctions that were adopted by the Security Council on the same day. One day later, he tweeted that the “Chinese envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man.” Beijing sent this emissary to Pyongyang in an attempt to engage Kim Yong-Un in a purposeful dialogue and launch a sustained diplomatic process at the end of which the parties concerned would agree on de-escalation, as a first step, and to proceed, in a later stage, in finding a permanent solution to the nuclear dangers hanging over the Korean Peninsula. However, the North Korean strongman declined to meet the Chinese envoy.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised Chinese cooperation, saying 30 November, that they are “doing a lot”, adding that the United States “thinks they could do more with the oil, not cut it off completely”. President Trump had asked the Chinese president to halt all oil shipments to North Korea, something that is doubtful, for it would lead to a complete breakdown in contact between Pyongyang and Beijing. Neither the Americans nor the Chinese would be comfortable with such a scenario. Channels of communications must be kept open with the North Koreans.

The message behind the latest missile launch is that Pyongyang is not averse to dialogue with Washington, but not on the basis of its nuclear disarmament. It is a non-starter for the Americans to call for and insist on the complete denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula at this stage. This could be negotiated in the context of a treaty on the Peninsula that will transform the armistice of 1953 into a permanent peace treaty between the two Koreas, coupled with security guarantees for the North against any American attacks. Similarly, American diplomacy should prove to be more flexible and imaginative in using carrots more than sticks in dealing with Kim Yong-Un. He could be escalating in order to get the sanctions lifted. The United States has nothing to lose by sounding him out, relying on the Chinese and the Russians, instead of driving Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow to the wall. No doubt, both the Japanese and the South Koreans would support, wholeheartedly, such a promising option. It would prove a win-win situation for all parties concerned, including the Americans. A nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula must never be an option.

However, tensions rose on the Peninsula last Monday, December 4, with the start of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea under the name of “Vigilant Ace”. These exercises were interpreted by the North as proof that the US administration is bent on a nuclear confrontation with North Korea, and called the exercises as a “complete provocation.’’ 

With 230 military aircrafts, these exercises are unprecedented. Some of the aircrafts involved, like the stealth F-22, are among the most advanced in the American arsenal. Thousands of soldiers are also taking part in the exercises. The message to the North is quite clear and has gained more credibility, strategically, with the remarks of Senator Lindsey Graham, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to CBS Channel last Sunday, that the strategy of the Trump administration is to prevent Pyongyang from acquiring the capacity of launching nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles against the United States. He did not rule out a pre-emptive war to prevent such an eventuality, which no one wants. 

The art of international diplomacy in the months to come will consist of how to encourage the North Korean regime to agree to a moratorium on its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles tests for a six-month period, the time necessary for providing the North with enough inducements, concessions and security guarantees that would encourage it to pursue a different and a less risky path to ensure its survival. 

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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