From accepting North Korea as a nuclear state, to China offering nuclear protection in exchange for the north denuclearising, there are creative ways open to world leaders to reduce tensions in the region, Stephen Nagy writes.
According to some estimates, North Korea has far greater military might than its neighbours to the South. This advantage is especially pronounced in active duty troops (1.19 million vs 655,000) and artillery pieces (21,100 vs 11,000).
This significant military muscle is positioned a stone throw away from Seoul. At a moment’s notice, or in the case of a surgical strike on the leadership of North Korea, this conventional force could be unleashed on South Korea’s capital and neighbouring areas, destroying one of the linchpins in East Asia’s economy, and having collateral effects on neighbouring economies through the global production chain.
Simply, the North poses an existential threat to South Korea but also is a potential major destabilising force in the region and global economy.
President Donald Trump’s decision to send an aircraft carrier group during the Major Parliamentary meeting and his threats to deal with North Korea unilaterally poses a great danger to the region. It also demonstrates a paucity in understanding of the strategic edge the North enjoys on the peninsula, the potential for countries in the region to shape North Korean behaviour, and the negative cascade of consequences that a strike would have.
The consequences of the Libya intervention and Iraq Wars have convinced the Kim regime that the acquisition of nuclear weapons will guarantee regime survival because the US is not willing to attack a nuclear power. This is North Korea’s paramount objective and its primary national interest shaping the country’s path towards nuclearisation.
Importantly, this drive outweighs the North’s economic and political relationship with China.
This is a germane point at three levels. First, in regards to the US’ strategic calculation that China has economic leverage on the North to pressure it to alter its behaviour. As regime survival is at stake for North Korea, it is hard to see how secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that do business with North Korea will alter the regime’s position on nuclear weapons. In contrast, secondary sanctions could have the reverse effect, with the North – fearing abandonment by China – suddenly accelerating its nuclear and ICBM development.
Second, China’s strategic interest in maintaining North Korea as a buffer state between a pro-US South Korea and a pro-China North to guarantee its own security would be compromised by weakening the North’s ability to defend itself.
Third, notwithstanding China’s interest in a pro-Beijing North Korea (irrespective of the Kim regime’s existence), a nuclear-capable North Korea has security implications for China’s longer-term national interests. Namely, encouraging Japan and potentially South Korea to acquire pre-emptive strike capabilities or even nuclear capabilities to act as a deterrent to not only North Korea’s nuclear threat but also China’s strategic nuclear arsenal.
Tokyo and Seoul have already begun to discuss the possibility of acquiring pre-emptive strike capabilities. In Japan, the national security panel of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is in the process of recommending acquiring pre-emptive strike capabilities, as are counterparts in Seoul.
Pre-emptive strike capabilities, in addition to THAAD installment in South Korea and Japan’s, theatre missile defense (TMD) and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) would further amplify China’s security concerns in the region and increase instability in the region by sparking an arms race. This trend would disrupt the stability and predictability that China values to ensure that it can continue its current socio-economic development trajectory.
With so many moving parts and conflicting national interests in the region, finding a solution to the North Korean conundrum requires patience, diplomacy, and compromise. The North’s strategic advantage over the South on the 38th parallel has resulted in a military stalemate. As a result, North Korea sees the US as its primary threat and has constructed its security paradigm based on that reality.
Rather than China holding the cards to solving the North Korea problem, it’s the United States which has the greatest potential to deescalate tensions on the peninsula. This task, though, has been made increasingly difficult by the hollowing out of the State Department through Trump’s proposed cutbacks and an escalation in tensions through tweet diplomacy and the movement of the USS Carl Vinson strike group into the area.
Bilateral talks between the North and the US, as suggested by China, rather than military force have the greatest potential for a positive yet less than ideal outcome on the peninsula. It is less than ideal because the US and countries in the region may have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea that is a permanent fixture of the international system. The trade-off is that in return there could be guarantees from the North to either limit its nuclear arsenal, or an agreement to gradually denuclearise in exchange for the extension of a China nuclear umbrella.
The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreement with Hong Kong shows that China can demonstrate both pragmatism and a relatively positive track record on these kind of agreements. The North Korean denuclearisation version could see China agree to extend its nuclear umbrella over the North in an agreed upon timeframe in exchange for the North’s commitment to denuclearise.
In return, the North would get a peace agreement with the US, a security guarantee from China and commitments from both South Korea and Japan to not resolve their security issues with North Korea through military means.
While not ideal, this arrangement would incrementally de-escalate tensions on the peninsula while maintaining China’s interest in having a pro-Beijing neighbour. For South Korea, the arrangement would continue the painful division of the Korean peninsula but may allow the North to purse an incremental, non-militarised, socio-economic development strategy that would make it a more synergistic and less provocative partner. This could lead to more family exchanges, economic partnerships and a gradual path towards peaceful coexistence.
In the mid- to long-term, this strategy would decrease the incentive for South Korea and Japan to invest in defensive systems that China deems a challenge to its security such as THAAD and the potential acquisition of pre-emptive strike capabilities. For South Korea, Japan and the US, a China that takes a leadership role in reducing tensions on the peninsula may contribute to building valuable political capital and trust with Tokyo, Seoul and Washington, all of whom have become disillusioned with Beijing’s support for the North.
This strategy is not without costs for the US, China, Japan and South Korea but it does chart a pathway forward in which military force and its associated cascade of negative consequences is avoided. The US would have to move away from its longstanding position that it will not negotiate with the North. It will have to offer a peace treaty to a country that deliberately pursued a nuclear program to force the US to the negotiations table setting an example for other states such as Iran who harbour nuclear or regional hegemonic ambitions.
Creative diplomacy, compromise, and dialogue may not be an immediate solution to dealing with North Korea and its nuclear brinkmanship, but they, rather than military power and threats have the potential to bring a sustainable peace to the peninsula.