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GV Saikumar Guntha asked: Why is only the US concerned with North Korean nuclear missile tests when it has implications for all countries in the region? Isn’t denuclearisation in India’s interest?

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  • Prashant Kumar Singh replies: There may be a legitimate curiosity about the US concerns regarding the DPRK’s (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or North Korea) nuclear missile tests. Whether the North Korean nuclear missile programme poses a direct threat to the US, or its concerns go beyond the immediate and direct threats.

    Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, examines this issue. He argues that the ground situation in the Korean Peninsula has fundamentally changed since the Korean War when the US had to intervene to defend the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). Since then, the power balance between the ROK and the DPRK in terms of economic and demographic might has completely shifted in favour of the former.  South Korea has the capacity to take care of itself against North Korea. Besides, there would be little justification or incentive for China or Russia to provoke or support the North’s aggression on the South. The DPRK’s ‘enmity’ towards the US is actually defensive in nature and stems from the latter’s continuing presence in the Peninsula in support of the ROK. Otherwise, “if the U.S. was not there, North Korea would pay no attention to the US,” argues Bandow. Thus, in Bandow’s view, the US commitments for South Korea are unnecessary. That the US presence and policies have pushed the DPRK towards nuclearisation is his argument. This summation would best capture many of the sceptics’ theses. 

    This view betrays an isolationist streak that has been there in American perceptions about its international affairs. However, one should recall the close links between American prosperity and its leadership of liberal economic and political international order. The scepticism about the US involvement in the Korean Peninsula can be repeated about its involvement in Libya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and the Taiwan Strait too. However, as a leader of the liberal economic and political order, it has to stand for its allies; and it has to safeguard its real or perceived, direct or indirect and present or prospective interests. The North Korean regime is part of what it perceives as the axis of rogues that threatens the values it claims to stand for. The US withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula will push South Korea to the Chinese sphere of influence. It will cause a loss of reputation and credibility in the eyes of other allies and friends such as Japan and Taiwan in the region. Also, its status as the leading defender of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, however unequal it may be, brings responsibilities towards curbing the North Korean nuclear missile programme.

    Therefore, the US stakes, its commitment and the expectations from it towards the North Korean nuclear missile programme operate on a much higher level than those of the other countries in the region. Yet the assumption that it is only the US that is concerned about the North Korean nuclear missile programme is not correct. The ROK and Japan have their concerns about it. China and Russia – apart from North Korea, South Korea, the US, and Japan – were part of the now-defunct Six-Party Talks mechanism on the issue. As for India, it supports the denuclearisation of the Peninsula and the relevant UN resolutions on this issue. However, seeing it in the same bracket as the US would be a bit off the mark.  

    Posted on July 02, 2021

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.