Friday, 15 February 2013

Is a North Korean bomb a direct threat to US security?

Not for the first time, I fear we're not paying enough attention to rising tensions in east Asia.

North Korea's underground nuclear test this week -- its third -- was a salutary reminder that all is not well in a region already facing a host of uncertainties.

Let's unpick just a few of them, starting with North Korea itself. It seems the world's last Stalinist dictatorship is now closer than ever before to having a nuclear bomb and a delivery mechanism which -- in theory -- could pose a direct risk to US security. (In other words, it can make a bomb small enough to be carried by a long-range missile all the way across the Pacific Ocean.)

No wonder President Obama responded to Pyongyang's latest example of nuclear sabre-rattling within hours of the test in his State of the Union address: "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate [North Korea] further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

Allies? Well, South Korea, obviously, but also Japan and Taiwan, both of which are growing increasingly twitchy at the dramatic changes in strategic power balance all around them. They know that they depend on the US security umbrella to enable them to sleep soundly at night -- and they need constant reassurance that the umbrella remains there for them.

Which brings us, as you thought it might, to China. A country that within the next five years or so will have overtaken the US as the world's biggest economy. A country with a military budget growing year by year, unlike the US military budget, which is being cut back.

A country that is arguing loudly with Japan over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea -- a dispute that just last week reportedly came close to open military action when Japan claimed that a Chinese naval frigate locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese ship near the islands.

When I wrote about this row last September, I suggested that it is more than a mere symbol of rival regional powers jostling for dominance. As I pointed out: "The islands are close to strategically important shipping lanes, and the waters around them offer rich fishing grounds and are thought to contain potentially lucrative oil deposits -- this isn't only about politics and pride by any means."

Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands and has controlled them since 1971, when they inherited them from the US, which had administered them since 1945. China calls them the Diaoyu Islands and says they've been part of China since as early as the 14th century and were ceded to Japan as part of Taiwan only after the first Sino-Japanese war.

Neither the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, nor the new Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe can afford to be seen to be weak on the issue of the islands' sovereignty -- and with naval vessels from both sides playing a constant game of cat-and-mouse in the waters surrounding the islands, the risk of an "accident", whether provoked or otherwise, cannot be ignored.

And there's another complicating factor as well: China's relations with North Korea. Traditionally, Beijing is regarded as Pyongyang's one remaining ally -- Chinese trade and aid is all that keeps the North Korean Kim dynasty in place. Now, though, Beijing is mightily miffed at the latest North Korean nuclear test, which went ahead despite earnest -- and public -- pleas from Beijing to desist.

Being mightily miffed is one thing; but breaking with Pyongyang is something quite different. Beijing certainly doesn't like being snubbed, but nor does it want its unpredictable neighbour to go into melt-down following economic collapse and a political implosion. The end of North Korea would lead to the unification of the two halves of the Korean peninsula, and that would mean US troops, potentially, on China's border.

So, once again, all eyes are on China. The talk of tougher UN sanctions against North Korea seems to me to be utterly irrelevant -- as we've seen in countries as diverse as Iran and Cuba, all that sanctions tend to do is strengthen paranoid regimes and bring hardship to the people over whom they rule.

Perhaps the incoming South Korean president Park Geun-hye, who takes office in 10 days' time, will adopt a more nuanced approach to her northern neighbours; perhaps the new US secretary of state John Kerry will be able to come up with a joint approach together with Beijing.

There are a lot of new leaders in the region these days -- and that's both an opportunity and a danger. The oppportunity is for some new ideas to be tried out; but the danger is that political inexperience could lead to mistaken assumptions about what is feasible.


Gaye Berry said...

To amp the tension, General Jung Seung-jo, Chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that S. Korea could launch pre-emptive strikes N. Korea tried to use nuclear weapons, stating, if N. Korea “shows a clear intent to use a nuclear weapon, it is better to get rid of it and go to war, rather than being attacked.” No doubt, the situation is red hot.

But does N. Korea have cause for upping the ante? N. Korea believes half of the Korean Peninsula is OCCUPIED by the United States. State Newspaper, "Rodong Sinmun" refers to S. Korea as a puppet of the United States. Most importantly, there has been increasingly provocative joint US-ROK military drills: Ultra-modern war machinery is being amassed in S. Korea & other areas around the Korean Peninsula. The US nuclear submarine + Aegis cruiser entered S. Korea to hold marine exercises and flex its strength. Does this not seem that US + S. Korea are inciting hostility?

Then there is lack of uniform treatment: N. Korea complains of discrimination e.g. S. Korea faced no international uproar over its recent satellite launch. The military might of the US-ROK forces most certainly poses an existential threat to N. Korea. So, it seems to me that Kim sees the proliferation of nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee N. Korean security and he may be right.

In spite of almost open war between the two Koreas in 2010 after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island & sinking of a S. Korean military vessel, China’s relationship with N. Korea has been marked with several steps forward e.g. economic cooperation with Beijing during the stable succession of Kim Jong-un. But China backed the recent UN sanctions on Pyongyang, indicating some disapproval with the Kim dynasty’s hostility. China signaled its frustration with the North in an opinion piece in the ultra-nationalis newspaper Global Times: “If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea.” The editorial went on to say that if the US, Japan and S. Korea “promote extreme U.N. sanctions on N. Korea, CHINA WILL RESOLUTELY STOP THEM AND FORCE THEM TO AMEND THESE DRAFT RESOLUTIONS.

China’s position IS A BALANCED POSITION. Beijing wants stability, does not want any military confrontations or mass refugee spillovers into its borders. Even as Beijing becomes more upfront with its discontent, China has a valuable economic stake in N. Korean development; it continually invests in joint ventures with Pyongyang and has led initiatives to develop the nation’s vast untapped mineral resources (which include deposits of coal, iron ore, gold ore, zinc ore, copper ore + more) valued at a whopping $6.1 TRILLION.

I believe the most likely move for China will be to requesting Pyongyang to drop the nuclear rhetoric in exchange for a meaningful security pact in which Pyongyang is guaranteed military support from China. Pyongyang has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to comply with the ROK’s demands, & vice-versa. Inter-Korean relations appear to be following an old script; for sure, the US cannot seem to climb out of its imperialistic box with US' solution to every issue being tighten sanctions on the North.
The case is now strong for the withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops stationed in S. Korea, a move that would satisfy civilians in both Koreas and yield higher chances of eliciting a positive response from Pyongyang. It cannot be exaggerated that most friction has been caused by the mere presence of US troops. Obama needs to get real: he needs to change strategy: Withdraw American military from OCCUPIED KOREA.

N. Korea suffered immense human loss during Korean War throughout the RELENTLESS US bombing campaign that flattened the country; it has legitimate grievances in wanting to safeguard its national security. But N. Korea must open its ears to China's advice. N. Korea’s controversial nuclear tests could propel a deadly military conflict between the two Koreas.

quietoaktree said...

South Korea was talking much about re-unification. The excuse for demise of the idea was the S.Koreans saw the cost of German re-unification and decided it was too expensive.

Then there was the Agreement that the North would be delivered free oil if it stopped its nuclear energy program.

The NK industrial zone also appears not to be doing well.

Somehow I get the feeling -- we are not hearing the whole story.

Gaye Berry said...

North Korean nuclear arsenal does not increase the chances of war; it reduces the likelihood that the United States and its South Korean PUPPET-state will attempt to bring down the Communist Govt in Pyongyang. I welcome this because I opposes imperialist military interventions; support the right of a people to organize its affairs free from foreign domination, manipulation and sanctions; & have an interest in the survival of alternatives to the global CAPITALIST system of oppression, exploitation, and foreign domination.