By Prabasi Nepali
Last week, North Korea tested its third Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), claiming the weapon could land anywhere in the continental United States, with France (also a nuclear power like the UK) saying that Europe was also within striking distance – implying that the entire Western world was threatened by the rogue state. The test ended a two-month lull in missile tests that had raised hopes for the opening of diplomatic talks. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un also claimed the test of the Hwasong-15 missile weapons system had helped his country achieve the goal of becoming a full nuclear power, sparking global condemnation.
At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council (called by the US, Japan and South Korea jointly) last week, Washington urged stringent action to respond to North Korea’s launch of the latest ICBM. US Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council: “The dictator of North Korea made a choice yesterday that brings the world closer to war, not farther from it,” and continued belligerently: “If war comes, make no mistake: The North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.” However, she left unsaid which country would initiate hostilities. US President Donald Trump had warned that ‘all options are on the table’, and this had been repeated time and again by his closest associates. Most national security pundits are of the opinion that Kim may take risks, but he is not suicidal.
The United States had also called on the nations of the world to cut ties with Pyongyang, but this was rejected by Russia while China sidestepped talk on a total oil embargo. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the idea outright. He was also not favourably disposed to further sanctions: “We have repeatedly stated that the pressure of sanctions has been exhausted.” There was wide perception in the world at large that the North Korean crisis was of America’s own making and that it could not expect other countries to help out,especially with Trump’s policy of “America First” which ignored the interests of other countries. With respect to the Trump administration’s climate change denial, this is harming the whole planet Earth.
The US has also not been successful with the ‘China Card’. Haley said Trump had called Chinese President Xi Jinping and urged him to “cut off the oil from North Korea”, a move, if followed, would deal a crippling blow to North Korea’s economy. “That would be a pivotal step in the world’s effort to stop this international pariah,” Haley said, warning at the same time, that if Beijing does not now act, “we can take the oil situation into our own hands.” These were stark words in contrast to Trump’s up to this time conciliatory approach (considering his perceived warm relationship with Xi) asking the Chinese president to use “all available levers” to pressurize the hermit state. “Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!” He tweeted.
Unfortunately for Trump and his beleaguered administration, China’s foreign ministry dodged questions about the US call for an oil embargo, with the spokesman instead telling reporters the usual non-commitment statement that Beijing upholds UN resolutions and backs the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula – the last being perhaps a long-term goal, but absolutely unreachable in the short-term. Beijing has, in fact supported a whole range of sanctions that include a moratorium on imports of North Korean coal, iron ore and seafood. In addition, the UN also prohibited the hiring of North Korean migrant workers and restricted exports of refined petroleum products. However, China steadfastly rebuffed calls to turn off its pipeline shipping crude oil to North Korea across the Yaluriver.
Beijing is very apprehensive that taking more rigorous actions against North Korea – like cutting off oil supplies – could cause the regime to collapse, triggering a major exodus of refugees towards China, where they would find food and shelter. In addition, the collapse of the North Korean regime would mean the removal of a strategic buffer separating China from the US military inSouth Korea. Instead, as a way out of the current crisis, China has proposed that the North stop missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a moratorium of US-Korean and US-Japanese joint military exercises in and around the Korean Peninsula. Washington has repeatedly rejected this initiative.
Instead, the US and South Korea went ahead on Monday with their five-day “Vigilant Ace” military exercises involving some 230 aircraft, including F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighters – five days after the North test-fired another ICBM, which they claimed can be tipped with a “super-large heavy warhead” and capable of striking the whole US mainland. However, American weapons experts remain unconvinced that it has mastered the advanced technology to allow the rocket to survive re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
Trump’s National Security Adviser (NSA), Lt.Gen. H.R. McMaster weighing in, warned that the possibility of war with the North was “increasing every day” and “which means that . . . we are in a race to be able to solve this problem.” In addition, “there are ways to address this problem short of armed conflict, but it is a race because [Kim is] getting closer and closer, and there’s not much time left.”It is very difficult to judge strategically whether this was a case of supreme brinkmanship, or a veiled threat to coax Kim to the negotiating table before his inevitable doom.
But the North seemed unperturbed. Even before the start of the largest-ever US-South Korean joint air exercises, they shot back verbally by characterizing these as “an open, all-out provocation” against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and “The US and South Korean puppet warmongers would be well advised to bear in mind that their DPRK-targeted military drill will be as foolish as an act precipitating their self destruction.” Pyongyang’s foreign ministry also accused the Trump administration of “begging for nuclear war” by staging what it called the reckless air drills.
The super-charged standoff between Trump and Kim has fueled concerns of another armed conflict, after the 1950-53 Korean War left much of the peninsula in ruins. But actually US military options are severely limited, because with theimmediate outbreak of hostilities, Pyongyang could launch a conventional artillery barrage on the South Korean capital area Seoul – extremely vulnerable at only 50 kilometres from the border and home to 10 million people. In such a critical situation, would Trump respect South Korea’s sovereignty and security interests in the first instance and consult with its leaders before precipitating a terrible war?