NORTH Korea has remained a pain in the neck for the free world since the beginning of the Korean crisis in 1945. The cold war is over, but the crisis in the Korean peninsula, and the trumped-up nuclear threats from North Korea to its neighbours, and now even to the United States, are not over. The end of the Korean war earmarked a stalemate, a discomforting truce between Pyongyang and its neighbours and America. Meanwhile, Beijing has emerged as the most powerful patron-cum-powerbroker for Pyongyang, which at times is quite discomforting for South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
While North Korea’s belligerence towards its immediate neighbours has been destabilising the entire region, its nuclear blackmailing and threats to the United States and US territories in the Asia-Pacific region seem to have apparently alarmed Washington beyond all expectations. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un’s blatant — albeit toothless — threats of nuking Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, and the US mainland with impunity seem to have benefited the Trump administration most as they have substantially diverted America’s public attention from the ongoing issue of Russia’s alleged hacking of the last presidential election in favour of Trump.
One wonders if it is too outlandish to assume that Trump not only enjoys the North Korean threats, but he is also somehow responsible for Pyongyang’s apparent belligerence towards America, and its allies in the Asia-Pacific. In other words, Trump might have ‘promised’ North Korean some ‘rewards, surreptitiously’! One may laugh at this as another conspiracy theory. So far so good! However, there’s something more laughable than suggesting Trump might have promised something substantial to Kim, making him threaten the United States, Japan, and South Korea. What is more bizarre is the contradiction within the Trump administration with regard to the North Korean nuclear threats. Trump does not want to normalise US relations with North Korea. He possibly considers Kim Jong-un’s nuclear threat as godsend to salvage his sinking popularity at home.
President Trump and his secretaries of state and defence said totally different things in this regard. While the president used very strong words, ‘fire and fury’ and ‘locked and loaded’, to intimidate Kim Jong-un in the most unambiguous terms, secretary Tillerson urged Americans to ‘sleep well at night’ amid the North Korea standoff. Defence secretary Mattis’s statement on this issue was nearly the opposite of Trump’s. Unlike Trump, he said diplomacy, not war, was the first option.
We know there is nothing new about the North Korean standoff, and America and its allies have been responsible for turning North Korea into their formidable adversary. As usual, America first creates its own nemeses and then try to resolve them, unsuccessfully most of the time. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan are some examples in this regard. Since America and its allies have pushed this resource-rich, poor communist nation against the wall, almost with ceaseless sanctions and perpetual threats of extinction for the past seven decades, there is hardly any option left for Pyongyang other than fortify its defence. For North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela are positive examples of survival against neo-imperialism, and Iraq and Libya are bad examples of defiance of western hegemony, without adequate military capability. Hence, the justification for Pyongyang’s ‘nuclear diplomacy’!
By the way, North Korea is not the only autocracy in the world. There are multiple other authoritarian regimes, having excellent relations with America. So, lack of democracy and violation human of rights are specious excuses against this communist autocracy. While its immediate neighbours, Japan, China, and Russia — except South Korea — are dead against the reunification of the two Koreas. despite America’s willingness to accept a united Korea, it wants the re-unification on its own terms. It is America’s unimaginative, bad diplomacy!
Instead of having a proactive policy, America is ambivalent about its course of action in the Korean Peninsula. On the one hand, America wants to keep its regional ally Japan happy by not pressing hard the re-unification issue; on the other, it wants total capitulation of the North Korean regime. America knows Japan, China, and Russia do not want a united Korea as they apprehend that a united Korea would challenge their economic and military predominance, in the long run. China opposes the re-unification as well, apprehending that in the event of two Koreas becoming one, American troops — now in South Korea — would be sitting across the common China-Korea border; and the united Korea could become China’s economic, if not military, rival in the long run. China also wants to keep North Korea under its military-economic-diplomatic umbrella as long as possible. China wants to exploit North Korea’s mineral resources, including gold and iron ore — worth more than $10 trillion — for its own use, for an indefinite period.
In hindsight, it seems only the Clinton administration played a pro-active role, taking North Korea into confidence towards a non-proliferation path for a durable peace across the region. The 1994 US-North Korea agreement, sort of, appeased Pyongyang, which agreed not to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, in exchange for energy aid from the United States. On a positive note, president Clinton was happy to declare the day after the agreement: ‘This agreement is good for the United States, good for our allies, and good for the safety of the entire world…. It’s a crucial step toward drawing North Korea into the global community.’ An international consortium planned to replace the North’s plutonium reactor with two light-water reactors. America agreed to supply North Korea with 5,00,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil every year to make up for the theoretical loss of the reactor while the new ones were built.
However, the euphoria was short-lived. George W Bush, not long after his election, called North Korea as part of an ‘axis of evil’ in his state of the union address in 2002. Soon, the Bush administration terminated the supply of fuel oil to North Korea, that was essential to the agreement. Consequently, Pyongyang kicked out the UN inspectors, restarted the nuclear plant, and began developing its nuclear weapons. Japan and South Korea, the key partners in the accord, were not happy with the decision to terminate the US-North Korea agreement, but there was little they could do about it. In January 2003, North Korea declared its withdrawal from the NPT. Soon, the American-led Iraq invasion in March 2003 — on the false premise of taking away Saddam Hussein’s non-existing weapons of mass destruction — must have precipitated Pyongyang’s decision to go nuclear, not to become another sitting duck like Iraq.
Soon after this, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea started the six-party talks to defuse the tension over North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT. However, several rounds of talks produced nothing. Thanks to America’s using offensive language against Pyongyang at the UN Security Council in April 2009, North Korea declared to pull out of the six-party talks, and decided to resume its nuclear programme. And the rest is history.
Now, Trump is playing an alarmist, dirty, and dangerous game with his nation and the whole world, over the so-called nuclear threat from Pyongyang. He is doing this to divert Americans’ attention from various domestic issues, especially his alleged involvement in the Russian election hacking in America. It is time for Trump to behave and act presidential like his predecessors, especially Clinton and Obama. His cry wolf about ‘impending nuclear attacks’ by North Korea on the United States and/or its allies in the Asia-Pacific does not bode well for peace and stability, within and beyond America. It might be good for him in the short run, but could trigger a catastrophic war across the region, which could last at least for another generation.
Dr Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014).
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