The lessons of the Annual Crisis

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Ilya Dyachkov, Associate Professor, Department of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Mongolian Languages, MGIMO University.

Occasional escalations on the Korean Peninsula each time are hotly debated in mass media, but can hardly surprise experts. Typically, difficult periods start in spring and there are several reasons for that. Exactly at this time the United States and the Republic of Korea usually conduct a joint exercise. This fact cannot but bother the DPRK. By the way, the scale of the maneuvers becomes larger every year: for instance, the personnel can practice such operation as seizure of Pyongyang. One more reason is connected with the actions and statements of North Korea itself. The North Korean missile launches, making Seoul and Tokyo nervous, usually “fall” exactly on May or April.

Despite the fact that the story is already familiar, this year there are more reasons for concern because of a higher level of uncertainty. First, expert and political circles do not know what to expect from the new American president Donald Trump on the Korean direction. The Obama administration used to follow the so-called “strategic patience” pattern, which, in fact, presupposes ignoring Pyongyang and avoiding a dialogue. During the electoral campaign Trump hinted at his readiness to enter talks with the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong-un, but the actions of the US president are not quite relevant to this promise. Early this year it was debated that Donald Trump was ready to consider a military scenario of neutralizing the North Korean atomic and missile programs under the pretext of Pyongyang being close to generating an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could pose a threat to the US mainland.

Despite at times surprising strides of the North Korean missile specialists,  Pyongyang is unlikely to obtain intercontinental ballistic missiles in the nearest future – first, there should be ranges, which the DPRK does not have, and, second, many tests should be done and it is impossible to hide all of them. The launches of the booster rockets (during the latest of them in February 2016 North Korea launched its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into space) really do prove the progress of the missile-development program, but this rocket cannot be easily transformed into an ICBM. Besides, the major adaptors of the North Korean booster rockets that have been demonstrated so far are nothing more than inventive modifications of the technologies of the 1960s-70s. Apart from the age of the technologies and doubtful accuracy of the supposed weapons, limited capacity (according to the South Korean estimates, it is about 200 kilos – even the smallest modern nuclear warheads are heavier) and country’s chances to develop a considerable missile force (the only one ICBM does not pose any real threat, especially to the United States) also raise questions. Let alone the fact that at the moment Pyongyang is unlikely to have access to the modern technologies of nuclear weaponization. Now we can be sure that the DPRK has nuclear devices, but nuclear weapons are a distant prospect. In fact, Pyongyang’s technological cap today is a free-fall bomb, rather than a warhead.

While Russian experts tend to share this skeptical view, their American counterparts usually have highest regard for the North Korean potential assuming that Pyongyang can easily overcome any technological barriers and if there is no evidence of the DPRK possessing this or that technology it can be explained by the North Korean skill to hide whatever they want. This year we are witnessing the worst case scenario since the negative impact of this Washington’s belief is laced with the lack of experts. Domestic differences do not let Donald Trump build a foreign policy team and assign executives responsible, in particular, for the Korean direction. In this context, the most diverse random factors can influence decision making and contribute to choosing a heavy-handed option.

Against this background, during his visit to Seoul in March 2017 the US State Secretary Rex Tillerson suddenly announced that Washington left open the possibility of a heavy-handed way of settling the Korean issue. Trump also tweeted a bellicose statement saying that the United States was ready to decide the North Korean issue if China was not committed to this. These statements were no longer perceived as purely political after the US strike on Syria on April 7, 2017 and sending an aircraft carrier to the Korean Peninsula.

On April 15 the DPRK celebrates the so-called “Day of the Sun” – the birth anniversary of the first North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. So, there are concerns that country’s authorities well decide to mark the occasion with the sixth nuclear test or a missile launch (recently such events play an important role in the North Korean home affairs) and the United States will either in return or pre-emptively strike North Korea. Pyongyang said that in that case American bases in the South would suffer from a retaliation strike. By the way, the US headquarters in Korea are situated in Seoul downtown and the Seoul metropolitan area, inhabited by almost a half of the country’s population, is in the powerful North Korean artillery group’s envelope. In other words, military actions taken by either of the two parties can result in a full-fledged devastating war.

Usually the South Korean stance serves as a deterrent here: despite the recent significant deterioration of inter-Korean relations it seems to realize the catastrophic consequences of the military scenario. But at the moment Seoul is politically weak: President Park Geun-hye was ousted charged with bribery and nepotism, and new elections have not been hold yet. It looks like this time South Korea was an observer rather than an activist and the major decisions were made by Washington and Beijing.

China is North Korea’s key economic partner but political relations between two states have recently deteriorated. This was caused by the nuclear tests of the DPRK and the execution of an influential North Korean politician Jang Song-thaek, who stood for the rapprochement with China. Beijing was annoyed and in 2016 supported two harsh UN resolutions on the Korean issue (No. 2270 and No. 2321). These documents, also supported by Moscow, considerably hardened economic, financial and transport sanctions against Pyongyang (in particular, Russia had to abandon some profitable projects). At the same time South Korean experts noticed that the volume of inter-Korean cooperation did not decrease. It looked like China wanted to “regulate” the severity of sanctions depending on the DPRK’s behavior – and this proved out in February 2017 when Beijing reduced import of the North Korean coal almost in half in response to the solid-fuel missile test.

It looks like the American establishment today thinks that Beijing’s political opportunities are the only peaceful leverage over Pyongyang. This reminds of the six-party talks – any impediment resulted in calls on China to get everything back on track. But still there is one difference: today Washington seems to hint to Beijing that the lack of control over its “junior partner” will turn into a military operation against North Korea.

Although this time Pyongyang and Washington managed to prove their wisdom and refrain from dangerous operations (however, a chance to deteriorate the situation always remains), the events of this April demonstrate how imperfect the system of political and military relations in Northeast Asia is. High level of uncertainty, shifting responsibility to other players, unwillingness to engage in a direct dialogue, attempts to solve shared problems in an “intimate” atmosphere allowing to negotiate without taking into account other parties’ interests confirm the system of interaction for which crisis is a normal thing. Although this time stability factor once again tipped the balance, the repetition of this situation is dangerous at least because against the background of uncertainty and distrust any tragic accident or provocative act may lead to a full-fledged clash.

The best way to overcome the problem is to make communication about security issues regular, permanent, equal and inclusive. But how to achieve this?

Curiously enough, an effective mechanism has existed for a long time already – pretty much forgotten after their cancellation in 2008 six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. If transformed into a permanent regional institute, the talks will excellently play the role of a stabilizing mechanism as regards their structure, experience and agenda.

All the powers of the region – Russia, two Koreas, the United States, China and Japan – now have the same matter of concern. It is the absence of a tool of control over the situation on the Korean Peninsula: that is why the USA is ready to talk about the “heavy-handed scenario” and the DPRK resorts to questionable means of security protection. A meaningful dialogue will provide all the parties with new political leverages and a multilateral format will make decisions more trust-worthy. The renewal of the six-party talks will allow all the parties involved to shape their own as well as common destiny, influence their partners’ actions and contribute to the region’s security.

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