Tense Times For The Korean Peninsula

Script: Dr. Jagannath Panda, Coordinator East Asia Centre, IDSA

The tension between North Korea and the United States seems to be entering a new stage with Pyongyang threatening to launch a missile attack on Guam, a military base of the United States in the Pacific islands. The United States in response has warned that such action by North Korea will amount to heavy price and lead to the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Jim Mattis, the US Defence Secretary has further warned that North Korea should not dare to ponder over such an action since Pyongyang’s military capability is heavily mismatched.

The possibility of North Korea striking in Guam though seems bleak. However, it can’t be entirely ruled out due to Kim Jong-un’s confrontational behaviour. It may sound rhetorical and perhaps unveils a position of fear on part of Kim Jong-un. Still it is no secret that Pyongyang today enjoys a high level of confidence after it has dragged international attention due to its nuclear and missile programmes.

The United States administration under Trump is still following the traditional path of imposing sanction and pressure on North Korea. In fact, the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) led by the US adopted fresh sanctions. Resolution 2371 (2017), on DPRK which will curb North Korea’s revenue generation further by depriving it almost $1 billion a year which would have been helpful for its nuclear and ballistic missile programme. This resolution targets four areas- coal, iron and iron ore, lead and lead ore, and seafood- which were helpful for Pyongyang to generate export revenue. To defy the increasing international pressure, Kim Jong-un continues with his verbal attacks on the Trump administration.

North Korea’s blatant rhetorical expressions to attack the United States are a smart strategy, though. This intent is to slowly prepare grounds and enforce the United States to declare and acknowledge that North Korea needs special and singular attention from the United States. This has been the classical strategy of Kim Jong-un for a long time to create international pressure in favour of his regime, so that the world community, including Washington, will acknowledge the importance of North Korea as a nuclear power and try finding solutions. Hence, North Korea continues to threaten the US.

Threatening to strike Guam is a risky proposition, but Kim Jong-un would like to do the unusual to disturb the status-quo. Therefore, a missile launch towards Guam looks plausible but Kim Jong-un may launch the missile in such a style that it might explode before reaching in Guam. The intent behind launching a missile strike on Guam however helps North Korea to grade three things. Firstly, instability in the Asia-Pacific region would continue; secondly, it allows Pyongyang to unveil to the international community about its ICBM capability and thirdly, the strike might help North Korea to create a level of fear over Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang believes that such an action will compel China, its reliable ally, to think about a scenario on how to handle the deteriorating security scenario in Northeast Asia.

Imposition of sanctions on the DPRK has always been contentious issue between China and other UNSC members, especially the US. To curb the DPRK’s nuclear activities, China has held the view that it is not an effective channel. In the past, China has supported the UNSC sanctions but has resisted ‘strong sanctions’, maintaining that the UN must employ ‘soft sanctions’ to bring the DPRK to the negotiating table for a dialogue.

By stressing on the protection of North Korea’s ‘humanitarian’ and ‘livelihood’ aspects, China wants to protect itself as the DPRK’s main defender and remain relevant strategically in the region. Besides, Northeast Asia is China’s own ‘backyard’, where Beijing does not want any humanitarian or military crisis to emerge.

India remains vigilant on the changing geo-political scenarios in Northeast Asia. New Delhi has condemned North Korea’s provocative missile tests. India has also said that North Korea’s nuclear posture remain a security concern for India’s neighbourhood. India should monitor the unravelling situation closely.