International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

11 August 2017

The bluster and ramped-up rhetoric from both North Korea and the US is doing nothing to defuse regional tensions. It’s time for a different approach, Daniel Fazio writes.

How is it that the US with its overwhelming military capability, and the regional powers (China, South Korea, Japan and Russia), appear unable to confront what seems to be an ever growing threat from North Korea – a country which, despite its large army and weapons arsenal, cannot threaten the US or the region without inviting its own destruction?

Washington and Pyongyang (and Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow) know their respective countries have no intention of attacking each other. The North Koreans know that conflict will result in the regime’s destruction. Yet regional tensions continue to escalate.

I have previously written in Policy Forum that the growing threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs over recent months heightens the risk of conflict breaking out through miscalculation. The more the rhetoric on both sides ratchets up – Pyongyang’s threat to strike Guam; Trump’s “fire and fury” warning – the greater the risk the US and North Korea could talk themselves into a conflict.

Pyongyang’s propaganda has created the perception that the US and the regional powers are incapable of taking effective action. This fosters the illusion of a powerful North Korea. The country’s militaristic rhetoric and claims of being perpetually ready for war are reminiscent of the state of Oceania in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In reality, North Korea, an impoverished authoritarian state, cannot impose its will beyond its borders.

Three factors are clear following Pyongyang’s series of missile launches.

First, the regime will not negotiate away its weapons program because it is its only bargaining chip. The North Koreans are in a very weak position but, as a US official told me three years ago, they “play a bad hand very well.” Regime survival is Pyongyang’s primary objective.

More on this: Want to understand North Korea? Start by looking at the South

Second, sanctions are unlikely to make Pyongyang alter its approach.

Third, China has limited influence with the North Koreans. Beijing can do more, but it does not possess a silver bullet. Calls by the US and its allies for China to “do more” to pressure Pyongyang, are, in part, an attempt to mask their own ineffectiveness and frustrations towards the regime.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the US and the regional powers must change their tactics or lose the game. Otherwise, the merry-go-round will continue: Pyongyang launches missiles, followed by international condemnation and sanctions. The more tensions increase, the greater the risk of a military confrontation.

The North Korean missiles are part of the regime’s political strategy to keep the world’s attention in order to perpetuate the life of the regime. Due to its inherent weakness, Pyongyang fears it will be “forgotten” rather than attacked. North Korea is intent on survival and will continue to thumb its nose at the US and the regional powers as long as it attracts attention.

The US and the regional powers surely know North Korea will continue with its missile and nuclear program. Despite causing regional destabilisation, without a military strike, there is virtually no hope of curbing Pyongyang’s weapons program.

A military response would, of course, have horrendous regional consequences – consequences so awful as to render this prospect almost unpalatable. Additionally, for strategic and economic reasons, the US and the regional powers do not want North Korea to collapse. This, too, plays into the regime’s hands.

Attempting to negotiate with North Korea is futile in the current circumstances. The regime has no intention of talking or negotiating in good faith. Instead, the US and the regional powers need to alter their political approach and consider “politically freezing” Pyongyang and forcing the regime to respond to them.

More on this: North Korea is the litmus test for a nuclear weapons ban

The North Korean missiles are more a political than a strategic and security problem. Pyongyang must be challenged politically, rather than be threatened with economic sanctions and military action. Denying the regime the necessary audience for its political propaganda may compel it to change its tactics. International attention is exactly what Pyongyang wants, so this should be severed.

The official North Korean broadcasts – the exultant news readers, Kim Jong-un and his coterie celebrating yet another “successful” missile launch, the repeated clips from seemingly endless military parades – are designed for international audiences, and are intended to create impressions of a strong regime. The news images are not for the North Korean people who, thus far, have no effective recourse against the regime’s ruthless suppression of dissent.

The US and the regional powers could consider a news blackout of North Korean broadcasts of missile launches. A drastic option, yes, but perhaps the situation requires a drastic non-military response? In practice, this could mean reporting any news on North Korea but without footage from Pyongyang. This would remove the histrionics that fuel Pyongyang’s propaganda, allowing some space for sober analysis and consideration of possible responses.

“News” from Pyongyang is meaningless, so North Korea observers and analysts would not be missing important information. This would likely infuriate the regime but it has no effective means of responding to a news blackout.

This news blackout could be coupled with a tacit and clear warning to Pyongyang that there will be serious consequences if any future missile launches result in a strike in any place beyond North Korea.

Denying Pyongyang’s propaganda an international audience would thwart its political strategy and could make the regime alter its behaviour in a tangible way. While there is no guarantee this would happen, continuing on the same merry-go-round will not break the current impasse or reduce regional tensions. Forcing Pyongyang to change its political approach could be the key to a diplomatic diffusion of the regional tensions caused by the regime’s recent missile launches.

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