North Korea is the most persistent challenge facing the global nonproliferation regime. Its continual nuclear testing since 2006 has led to a charged political and strategic environment in the region, stirring anxiety among major powers alongside challenging the limits of their influence on its behaviour. The current level of tensions between the US and North Korea have reached such a grave level of uncertainty that it is endangering international peace and stability. With an impending crisis in the region, the sword of Damocles hangs over the strategic stability in northeast Asia with the inevitable consequences.
The nuclear North Korea is drawing the world’s attention as it is impacting the contours of strategic stability in the Korean Peninsula. Some of the most pressing issues that abound the East Asian security environment include efforts to streamline Pyongyang; through more sticks than carrots now. At the root of the problem lies their intransigence, which, at one level, is depicted by its unwillingness to be governed by international regulations and, at another level, is depicted through its futile efforts to diplomatically streamlining North Korea at the world stage. The factors exacerbating the situation include measures like the massive Foal Eagle military exercises involving some 20,000 South Korean and 10,000 US troops as well as annual joint exercises, popularly known as Key Resolve. Although such exercises are undertaken for containment of any future questionable scenario, they add to the chaos in the region. Pyongyang reacts strongly to such provocative scenarios, calling them as plans for an invasion or a “decapitation strike” against the North Korean leadership.
Without doubt, there is no military solution to the North Korean problem. In a recent interview with Reuters, US President Donald Trump praised China’s President Xi Jinping for his efforts to resolve the dispute over North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programmes. But he cautioned that if any diplomatic efforts fail, “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” The Trump administration also warned of undertaking military action if diplomacy failed. However, it is naive to think that China will help or apply maximum pressure without a serious opening for talks between Washington and Pyongyang or that pressure alone can force North Korea to change course.
In UN’s Security Council session, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for new economic sanctions on North Korea and other “painful” measures over its nuclear weapons programme. Tillerson referred to US willingness to negotiate directly with North Korea under the strict condition that it would end its nuclear weapons programme. But that seems unlikely in the near future. Soon after his statement, the North Korean missile test-fire depicted just the opposite, underscoring Pyongyang’s determination to show its defiance to increasing international pressure.
Historically, the US and other major powers negotiated with North Korea to end its nuclear, missile development programme and export of ballistic missile technology after its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003. These negotiations had earlier been preceded by unsuccessful attempts. As early as in 1994, it was thought that the issue had been resolved when the US, along with other states, and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework. Under this agreement, Pyongyang committed to cease its plutonium weapons programme and the US committed to provide two light-water reactors and normalisation of the political and economic relations with North Korea. The agreement became ineffective in 2002, when Pyongyang exercised its legal rights by withdrawing from the NPT, straining strategic relations with Washington.
In order to dissuade North Korea from pursuing a nuclear weapons programme ‘six-party talks’ were initiated in August, 2003. The states involved in these talks were China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the US. In between moments of stalemate and optimism, those talks arrived at a critical breakthrough in 2005. A significant role was played by China as a third party mediating between the US and North Korea. However, the larger objective of mainstreaming Pyongyang was missed.
Currently, the crossfire of statements from the US and North Korea in the past few days are adding further complexity to the political and strategic tension. The US administration is signaling ultimatums to China and threats of overwhelming military force against North Korea. On April 3rd, President Trump stated in an interview to The Financial Times that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” In response, Pyongyang paraded its ballistic missile arsenal, including canisters for new intercontinental ballistic missile variants. Consequently, senior US officials warned that “all options are on the table.” On the other hand, North Korea has already refused to hold any talks that would discuss its nuclear abandonment and disbandment.
This tense political and strategic environment demands a vigilant approach by the US, China and other stakeholders in dealing with North Korea. The objective should be to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, ultimately leading to the elimination of nuclear infrastructure and associated technologies from South and North Korea, and establishing internal peace and order on the Korean Peninsula. A viable approach to achieve this goal can be to address North Korea’s security concerns, energy shortages and economic woes.
Ms. Huma Rehman is currently working as a Research Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad, Pakistan, where she works on various aspects of Strategic security issues; International Security, Nuclear/Missile Proliferation, WMD Terrorism, Arms Control/Disarmament, Conflict management and Resolution. Among her academic degrees, she holds M.Phil degree in Defense and Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.