On 3 September 2017, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) conducted its sixth nuclear test. Data collected by the monitoring stations of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), based in Vienna – which operates a global nuclear test monitoring system- suggests that it was the most powerful detonation North Korea has conducted so far.
The recent nuclear blast proves Pyongyang’s full determination to continue advancing its nuclear programme, which the regime has been working on for decades. Its nuclear aspirations started under the reign of Kim II Sung at the end of World War Two and took form during the rule of his son, Kim Jong Il, who first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, using nuclear technology acquired from Pakistan and centrifuges to enriched uranium purchased from Libya. The development of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programme has been accelerating since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. According to the ‘annual nuclear forces data’ – released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) – today, North Korea is estimated to have fissile material for approximately 10–20 nuclear warheads, which suggests that the number has been steadily increasing over the past years.
While the situation is now deteriorating on a daily basis, with a war of words between Washington and Pyongyang in full sway, no plan for a way out of the deadlock is on the horizon. Instead, as media coverage suggests, there is much confusion, misinformation, and misinterpretation resulting from cherry picking facts and faulty reasoning. The rhetoric employed by Trump, such as the United States responding with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” bluntly exposes the US’ lack of strategy and deep frustration over how to deal with Pyongyang.
Not so irrational?
The common image of North Korea painted both in Western media and political circles is that of an isolated and belligerent state with a madcap, furious, and unpredictable leader who wishes nothing more than to destroy the world. It is for this ‘irrationality’ that Washington has refused in the past to engage in talks with Pyongyang.
Nevertheless, as amoral and absurd as North Korea’s actions may appear, portraying the regime as an irrational actor abundantly misses the point and is all but helpful in understanding the reasoning behind Pyongyang’s actions and accordingly, in formulating appropriate solutions for getting out of the current deadlock.
In fact, the recent nuclear tests are neither incidental nor are they senseless acts of fury by a mad leader. Rather, they are precisely calculated and reflect Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrence strategy, which serves its objective of self-preservation and security in the region, apart from other objectives such as achieving economic prosperity and sustaining internal legitimacy. Survival has been a top priority guiding North Korea’s foreign policy since the partition of the peninsula following the Second World War. Pyongyang’s strategic calculus follows the logic of the realist ‘balance of power’ approach vis à vis the United States. The military presence of the United States in the South of the peninsula is regarded by the DPRK as the biggest threat to its national security. In this sense, Pyongyang considers its nuclear arsenal as defensive. Only a nuclear deterrent, as goes Pyongyang’s reasoning, can grant it protection against the United States’ ‘imperial ambitions’. From Pyongyang’s point of view, in light of the numerous military interventions and regime changes, (including the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011), which the US has conducted or supported abroad, it has reason enough to fear Western interference in its domestic affairs and the extension of its influence in the region.
In this regard, the recent nuclear tests can be interpreted both as a demand of the United States and its allies to accept the DPRK’s nuclear aspirations, as well as a disapproval of the US’ huge military presence across Southeast Asia and the Pacific – especially in South Korea, Japan, and Guam – manifested in deployed US troops and the conduction of military exercises with its allies in the region. Ultimately, for Pyongyang it is a revolt against double standards, which the US is employing with regard to international law and security affairs. One such disturbing double standard from North Korea’s point of view, is the fact that Washington is vehemently opposing a nuclear DPRK, while at the same time it is tolerating the development of nuclear arsenals by other states. Another fact that exposes the Washington’s problematic approach and its belief in exceptionalism and the right to dictate and impose unilaterally defined rules and norms in the name of democracy, is that while the United States itself is stationing its soldiers in South Korea in order to guarantee security to its ally, in North Korea there are no troops from China – Pyongyang’s biggest ally.
Filling the missing gaps
To encompass the full picture of the situation, it is imperative to bring China into the equation. China as a major power and key player in the region is directly affected by the developments in the regional security environment and has a key interest in solving the crisis. The international community – most notably the United States – continuously urged Beijing to influence and put pressure on the North Korean regime to stop the tests and to give up its nuclear programme. However, it is necessary to understand China’s national interests and strategic calculus in order to accurately interpret its position towards the ongoing events, including its refusal to support US-proposed sanctions against the DPRK. Beijing is Pyongyang’s main strategic ally. Pyongyang acts as a buffer state and a divided peninsula provides a counterbalance against the US dominance with its security alliance system in East Asia and the Pacific. Therefore, one should not expect that China will side with the US in taking action which harms the Pyongyang regime, such as restrictive sanctions or military action. The ideological and political partnership and trade relations aside, Beijing fears that any domestic chaos within North Korean as a result of a regime overthrow, would possibly expand US presence in the region, as well as that it might trigger a refugee influx into China.
This does not mean however that China welcomes the development of North Korea’s nuclear programme. To the contrary, from Beijing’s perspective, a nuclear capable DPRK threatens regional security and stability and runs against its interest, although China is not concerned about it as are South Korea or Japan. Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear programme is problematic for Beijing, in that it not only creates uncertainty and instability, but also risks a potential military offensive from Washington and further enhances US military presence in the region. One such reaction in response to Pyongyang’s tests is the announced deployment of the US anti-ballistic missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) on South Korean territory. Although it has been officially declared by the US as a deterrent against the DPRK, it is ultimately directed against China as well, as the radius of the shield goes well beyond the Korean Peninsula, reaching China. Experts have warned that this will directly influence China’s military planning. This is reflected in the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi’s, recent statement that THAAD is “not a simple technical issue, but an out-and-out strategic one”.
There is also the question of how China would behave in the case of a direct military confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington. Last month, a Chinese state-run newspaper reported that in a situation of Pyongyang being the first to carry out strikes that threaten the United States, China would remain neutral. And what if the US decided first to launch a preemptive attack against Pyongyang? How then, if at all, can we expect China to react? Much has been speculated, with various arguments brought forward. What is widely missing in most of these analyses – and rather unknown to the mainstream public, but key for understanding China’s stance – is the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, signed on 11 July 1961, which sheds light on China’s position and its possible moves in case of a confrontation. This Friendship Treaty is a mutual security assurance between Beijing and Pyongyang, and thus provides a legal basis for China’s assistance to North Korea in case of an attack on the DPRK by a third party. The ‘neutral stance’ China declared for the case in which North Korea would attack first, is also codified in the treaty. Article III precisely states that “Neither party shall conclude any alliance directed against the other party (…)”.
Breaking the deadlock
With the situation deteriorating quickly, it is imperative to stop rhetorical saber-rattling and demands that are doomed to fail, and instead bring to the table realistic options that are acceptable to both sides. One such proposal worth considering is the ‘de-escalation plan’, presented by Russia and China last July. This idea of a ‘dual suspension’ encompasses the proposition of freezing nuclear missile tests by North Korea in exchange for the suspension of US-South Korean annual joint military exercises. In the current situation this, or another approach that does not set unfulfillable preconditions for negotiations, might have the potential of easing the current tensions in the immediate term. This could prevent a war sparked by an incident and miscalculation quickly, and should be seriously discussed, as it could serve as a first step towards broader negotiations on the North Korea case and future stability in Asia. China, South Korea, Japan, and not least Russia, must be all engaged in the discussion. Due to their geographical proximity and security concerns outlined above, all of these countries have reason for concern over the current developments. As the events unfold, there is no doubt that the crisis will not be solved through the United States’ preferred instruments of foreign policy that it has been deploying when dealing with ‘rogue states’. Punishing Pyongyang with sanctions, deploying military force, or attempting to change the regime will not ease the tensions in the immediate term nor stop the DPRK from advancing its nuclear programme in the long-term. After North Korea’s last nuclear test, President Trump said that “talking is not the answer”. However, in light of the quickly deteriorating situation, which risks escalation, and the shrinking room for maneuvering the US finds itself in, it seems that talking is the answer.