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The Korean Imbroglio

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • April 25, 2013

    That threats and counter threats emanate frequently across the DMZ on the Korean peninsula is nothing new, only the intensity varies. Often it seems that a conflict is imminent, but much of it is bluster; for none of the principals are interested in a renewed conflict.

    The starting point of the current crisis was the third nuclear test conducted by North Korea in February 2013 and the military exercises conducted jointly by the US and South Korea. These military exercises are conducted regularly by the latter two countries on an annual basis. However what distinguished them this year was the unusual belligerence, with the US bringing B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth aircraft to South Korea. The US made no effort to hide the fact that these aircraft were nuclear capable. The shrill response of North Korea to ‘Operation Foal Eagle’ was expected, since the North believes that a major US objective is a ‘regime change’ in North Korea.

    The secretive regime in North Korea was sharply taken aback when China supported UNSC Resolution 2094; passed by the Security Council on 7 March 2013. North Korea was particularly resentful against the Chinese, for UNSC 2094 contained financial sanctions. Many analysts interpreted Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s remarks that ‘no country should be able to throw the region or even the entire world into chaos for selfish gains,’ as being directed against the North Korean leadership. However, that would be reading too much into a firm relationship forged over decades. There are others who believe that North Korea would do nothing without Beijing’s explicit clearance.

    North Korea has just seen a transition in power. Ostensibly a socialist state, North Korea has for all practical purposes become an autocratic state with an established dynasty. Kim Jong-un is the third in a line of succession going back to his grand- father, the legendary Kim Il-sung. The new leader has still to establish his leadership qualities and is in the process of consolidating his power. There are indications of a reshuffle of the top echelons of the party and government leadership, with Kim Jong-un trying to place his loyalists in positions of power. The appointment of Pak Pong-ju as the new PM of North Korea has been welcomed for he is known as an economic reformer and as a pragmatist. By taking a belligerent stand against alleged US and South Korean provocations, Kim hopes to establish his credentials as a ‘tough’ leader who can stand up to US. In South Korea too, a dynastic succession of sorts has taken place with the new President, Park being the daughter of the dictator who ruled South Korea in the eighties.

    With tight media control, the western powers would have most of us believe that it is the belligerent ‘North’ that threatens the peaceful ‘South’ and that provocations only emanate from the former. However, comparisons between the two halves of the divided peninsula would give quite a different picture. The South is twice as heavily populated than the North [48m to 24m]. The GDP per capita is even more lop-sided [US$ 32,400 to US$1800]. As far as military spending is concerned South Korea spends on an annual basis US$ 26.1 billion as opposed to North Korean annual budget of US$ 8 billion [CIA Source Book]. The armed forces of the South are far superior, equipped with the latest in US military hardware. There are also elements of two US frontline divisions stationed in South Korea. It would be inconceivable that US forces stationed in South Korea are not equipped with weapons of mass destruction.

    The US believes that North Korea violated the 2005 ‘aid for denuclearisation’ deal by not carrying out its obligations. The US also believes that the North Koreans violated this agreement by carrying out a nuclear test in 2006. But what has alarmed Washington is that the North Koreans are pursuing a uranium enrichment programme that would give it a second path to a nuclear weapon, in addition to its plutonium based programme. The US is not averse to reopening the six party talks, but needs assurances regarding North Korea’s future nuclear programmes.

    There is no doubt that the key to finding a solution to the present stalemate lies with Beijing. China is aware of this. China is also aware that the North Koreans do not have any one else to turn to. Nearly 70 per cent of all North Korean trade is with China and the North is heavily dependent on food, consumer goods, military supplies and financial aid from China. Thus the support of China is crucial for the North Korean regime’s survival. On the other hand the North Koreans also know that, no matter how ill- considered or how provocative their behaviour, at the end of the day, China will have no option but to rescue them. As in 1950, China cannot afford to have a hostile, pro-US regime on their sensitive North-East borders.

    For the Chinese, North Korean belligerence towards the US and South Korea is both an opportunity as well as an issue of future problems. China does not want North Korean verbal belligerence to go viral for it cannot stand aside; lest the North Korean regime disintegrates. The most interesting Chinese ‘demand’ made to Kerry was to ‘lift and ease’ the ban on US exports of hi-tech items to China! China while admitting that ‘both countries [North Korea and the US] must shoulder an inescapable responsibility for raising tensions’1, also bluntly stated that ‘withdrawing US troops from South Korea is the fundamental way to resolve the crisis.’2 Interestingly, China maintained that US troops should stay in Japan to ‘put down militarism!’

    There has been a perceptible shift in US policy for the Asia-Pacific region. Thus while the US ‘pivot’ to Asia will perhaps remain unchanged, the core would have undergone a substantive change with emphasis now on boosting ‘co-operation’ with China instead of ‘containment.’ The US badly needs Chinese assistance not only in dealing with a belligerent North Korea, but as Kerry made clear, for tackling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the question of Syria and the dollar-yuan exchange rate. It is not for nothing that the US has agreed to hold the high-level 5th Sino-US Strategic and Economic dialogue as early as in July 2013 and that the US National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon is visiting China in May. And as the new Chinese PM, Li Keqiang emphasised to Kerry, the US and China had a ‘shared responsibility.’

    It is entirely possible that, as in the past, once the US-South Korean joint ‘military exercises’ are over North Korean belligerence may die down. It is also possible that with significant Chinese help the six nation talks might resume. Nevertheless, the perception has gained ground that the US will eventually not only accept the concept of ‘shared responsibility’ with China, but also reconcile to the fact that North Korea is now a nuclear weapons power. In that case the US strategy might change from trying to ‘eliminate’ North Korean nuclear weapons programme to one of ‘containment.’

    The question for other countries in the region and beyond would be; is this new perception of Sino-US ‘shared responsibility’ limited to the Korean peninsula only or does it extend to the South China Sea or even beyond to the Indian Ocean region? There are two important straws in the wind. The US has cancelled the important Indo-US Air Force joint exercises ostensibly for ‘budgetary’ constraints! And the Chinese PLA has intruded well on the Indian side of the ‘Line of Actual Control’ in Ladakh near the important Daulet Beg Oldi [DBO] area. They show no sign, at present, of withdrawing from that area.

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

    • 1. Chen Fengjun, Global Times, 17 April 2013
    • 2. Ibid., Global Times