North Korea’s nuclear antics may be obscured by the mayhem unfolding daily in the Middle East but the situation on the Korean peninsula is brittle and could break at any moment, provoking a crisis of global dimensions. The fact that Kim Jong-un is isolated from any semblance of reality means that his actions consistently defy rational analysis.
Three things are clear:
1. The U.S. tactic of “strategic patience” with regard to North Korea is not working. It not only has failed to contain Mr. Kim’s nuclear ambitions but also no longer satisfies allies like South Korea or Japan, both of which are more directly threatened by North Korea’s advanced, nuclear capabilities.
2. South Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye is obviously fed up with efforts to negotiate or barter. She now talks, unusually, about “regime change,” urging a new approach to dismantling the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang and calling explicitly for more overt military action against her bombastic, northern neighbour.
South Korea has closed the jointly run industrial zone in Kaesong that provided funds to the North Korean regime and, in the face of threats about “disastrous and painful consequences” being inflicted from the north, has introduced legislation that would intensify Seoul’s ability to guard against terrorist attacks. Clearly, the status quo is fraught with uncertainty.
There is talk, too, of a U.S. anti-missile defense system (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD) being deployed to South Korea and possibly to Japan as well. The U.S. has already dispatched an aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines and advanced F-22 fighter jets to South Korea ahead of the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled for next month. These actions signal clearly both to Pyongyang and Beijing that “patience” is no longer the name of the game on the peninsula.
3. China is caught between conflicting concerns about potential chaos in North Korea spilling over into China itself and about the threat, tacit or otherwise, from more militant activities by the U.S., South Korea and Japan. China is the only power with any capacity for influence in North Korea but words of caution directed by Beijing at Pyongyang thus far have had no discernible effect, and the Chinese show no sign of moving beyond rhetoric.
Meanwhile, China’s stationing of surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea aggravate matters further for many in the region and may even exhaust the patience of a confrontation-averse U.S. President Barack Obama.
The commercial interests of all parties except North Korea – an economic basket case by any measure – are what have served to check any direct military response to take out Pyongyang’s nuclear capability. There are also concerns about the inevitable damage – economic and physical – that would ensue from overt action. But the temperature is rising, frustration is mounting and the mood is tense.
Trouble on the Korean peninsula is not new. Mr. Kim’s unpredictable gambits may be intended primarily to shore up his own precarious political position in the world’s most totalitarian and hermetic state. He had limited time to learn how to wield the reins of power from his father and undoubtedly believes he has nothing to lose by being provocative. But North Korea’s nuclear capability is increasing and diplomatic negotiations, including those with outright bribes, have not worked to alter his behaviour.
The scope for diplomacy is limited. For the time being, a stiffer spine and more muscular posture by the U.S. and its allies may be the best way to keep matters in check. At some point, every schoolyard bully needs to be shown that actions have consequences.
Inevitably, a peaceful evolution to unification is the solution that would inject more reason into the equation. That is the objective South Korea’s President seems now prepared to work openly toward. It is a goal that would not only resolve mounting tensions on the peninsula but also could be structured to accommodate and improve economic and security issues for all relevant parties.