Monday 22 January 2018

All are sleepwalking towards a conflict that can be avoided

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump

John Hemmings in London

This is not "just another North Korean missile launch".

The "successful" testing of what North Korea's state news agency KCNA called an "inter-continental ballistic missile" takes the Korean Peninsula one step closer to a conflict that could drag in the world's great powers and cost millions of lives.

This time is different, and potentially much worse than before, because it threatens to bring a reaction from the United States. The US closely monitors North Korea's ability to strike cities on the west coast, and significant progress towards that goal is unlikely to go unanswered.

According to Chad O'Carroll, managing director at Korea Risk Group, a North Korean nuclear missile that can reach the west coast is deeply problematic for a sitting US president.

"The acrimonious nature of relations between the two countries makes Pyongyang's possession of an ICBM a far more urgent threat for Washington … and has the potential to undermine South Korean and Japanese confidence in the security of the US nuclear umbrella," he said.

The fact this missile came on the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States, will be seen as a deliberate provocation.

It also has the potential to bring Beijing and Washington to crisis point in a month which has seen bilateral ties plummet over a US arms deal to Taiwan.

Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang urged North Korea to stop violating UN sanctions on missile launches, but ended his remarks by calling for calm, a ritualistic statement that it raises after such events, one that settles blame across the region, rather than squarely with the North.

China's current position is to press for denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula by getting the US and South Korea to stop their annual defensive military drills, which Pyongyang claims threaten it. In response, the North would suspend missile launches and nuclear testing.

Given the fact North Korea invaded the South in a surprise attack in 1950 - triggering a war which cost nearly a million South Korean civilians their lives - this is a non-starter for American and South Korean military leaders.


The reaction by South Korea's new progressive-minded leader Moon Jae-in was more indicative of where things really stand. Fresh from a summit with Donald Trump, Mr Moon is likely to know the US president's thoughts better than most. For a man who has sought to de-escalate tensions, his warning was stark: "I hope North Korea will not cross the point of no return".

Mr Trump's tweet in the early hours of yesterday once again put the ball in China's court, wondering if Beijing would "end this nonsense once and for all".

Since he has already deployed new forces - including a carrier group and nuclear submarine - in waters in and around the Korean Peninsula, many are wondering what the red line will be for Washington.

So how can the situation be resolved? Many would argue that there are no good options, but it's clear that few have been truly tried.

South Africa is a case in point. As an apartheid regime, it too tried to establish a nuclear weapons programme in the late 1980s.

Unlike North Korea, sanctions against the South African regime were far more rigorous, and the state far more isolated on the international stage. Largely down to its anti-Western rhetoric and surface-level claim to be a socialist state, North Korea has escaped this level of pressure and isolation.

Unfortunately, Russia and China are the two main enablers of North Korea, helping it outwit its sanctions with front companies and quiet cross-border trade.


Naturally, all of this trade is "in the name of peace". Despite promises to Mr Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Beijing has done little to press sanctions. Pyongyang's largest trading partner, it made a great show of turning back coal ships in February, however, its outrage this month over Washington's sanctioning of Dandong Bank - a small Chinese bank complicit in North Korean money-laundering - showed where China's interests lie.

Russia, already smarting under Western sanctions, is also problematic. While pressing for a peaceful resolution, it is increasing business links and regularly "rents" North Korean labourers to work its timber camps. Both continue to round up North Korean defectors and "repatriate" them to certain death in North Korean camps.

Again, South Africa provides a template. Under US leadership, the international community could resolve the issue fairly quickly. Countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia could stop accepting North Korean labourers - some 50,000 are said to work under contract abroad.

International banks could sanction any financial institution that enables more than the bare minimum of North Korean trade. Certainly, the small arms market that has sprung up between North Korea and Chinese coastal cities - like Dalian - could be stopped.

International tourism could be fully stopped.

The answers are there, but they demand the political will. It is not merely North Korea that is sleepwalking toward conflict. By not taking steps to stop it, we are all doing the same - and it will be a conflict in which Koreans will suffer the most.

John Hemmings is director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society

Irish Independent

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