The North Korea problem all along took the characteristics of a pantomime in the politics of northeast Asia. Fundamentally, it has been about a country forcing its way into the ranks of nuclear powers. Lately, the pantomime has become kinetic with the crisis entering a dangerous spiral.
A complicating factor adding to the uncertainty lies in the political personality of US President Donald Trump. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released on September 24, two-thirds of Americans regard their president to be a highly divisive figure who cannot be trusted to act responsibly in handling the North Korean crisis. On the other side happens to be Kim Jong-un, a master performer in verbal jarring and muscle-flexing. Thus, the pantomime lately got imbued with the intense irrationality of a dream.
However, the plot quintessentially remains the same—nuclear weapon as strategic deterrent. Except for the United States, for the other seven countries with nuclear weapons—Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan—these have remained purely defensive weapons that provided the ultimate means to deter attacks. North Korea hopes to join them. Nuclear weapons create military balance where otherwise asymmetry prevails between conventional forces. North Korea’s strategic agenda is perfectly comprehensible, all that western demonising of Kim notwithstanding. Kim is completing an agenda of strategic deterrence by developing thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
From this point, the plot of the pantomime thickens. No doubt, the US has the military capability to “totally destroy” North Korea, as Trump threatened. But make no mistake that an American attack almost certainly would trigger a North Korean response that might provoke an American counterstroke that could escalate to nuclear war. Hundreds of thousands of lives, including American lives, may perish and the economies of South Korea and Japan will be shattered. China and Russia will also have to pick up the debris. In the chaos of the unimaginable “nuclear winter” that will ensue, over 2 billion people will be affected. If in reply to an American attack North Korea hit the US, what would be the result? The city of Los Angeles, with a population exceeding 13 million, would be only one target.
Clearly, attacking North Korea is not a rational policy choice. The good part is that there is no imminent sign of an outbreak of war. On the other hand, sanctions are not going to force a rethink in Pyongyang. There is no hope on earth that North Korean leadership can be persuaded to cap and roll back its nuclear and missile development programme. Pyongyang is determined to complete its nuclear and missile development cycle within the year and to pressure the US to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean War.
Indeed, it will be a huge loss of face for the Trump administration to admit that a de-nuclearised Korean Peninsula is no longer an achievable goal. Meanwhile, South Korea may decide at some point to develop its own deterrent capability. Japan, too, may follow suit. That would trigger a massive shift in regional alignments.
Realistically, therefore, the only practical option open to the Trump administration is containment. However, it involves extraordinary statesmanship and skilful diplomacy to engage with Pyongyang to work towards a matrix of understanding that addresses its insecurities while conceding that North Korea’s integration as a nuclear power is inevitable.
The US cannot handle the challenge unilaterally and needs the help of China and Russia, which have lines open to Pyongyang. Of course, a new type of big-power relationship between the US, China and Russia based on equality, mutual respect and trust becomes crucial here. Suffice to say, the pantomime over North Korea puts to severe test the lingering American “unipolar predicament” in the contemporary world order.