US President Trump has vowed to boost US military capabilities in South–East Asia to counter both North Korea’s dangerous nuclear policy, and its recent missile tests. A US carrier group deployment into waters close to North Korea, combined with US missile attacks in Syria, amounts to an 180-degree turnaround of Trump’s previous policy designed to keep the US out of conflicts. Despite the critical verdict of the UN Security Council and intensified sanctions, the government fired several ballistic, submarine-based and medium range missiles throughout 2016. A manipulated North Korean public applauds this ambitious military program, and it would not be surprising if tests of nuclear devices or missile launches continue throughout 2017. What are the Kim government’s motives for the bellicose approach that drives the country into an ever-increasing isolation? The regime seems to pursue at least three aims with these provocative actions: one is internal, one relates to China and the third relates to its affairs with the US.
The first and most obvious reason for this risky strategy is the survival of the regime. The nuclear policy is in place to strengthen the regime’s stability. Officially, the government in Pyongyang aligns its policy along the so-called “Pyongjin” line which, unlike the military priority under Kim’s father Kim Jong Il, is supposed to balance economic and nuclear developments. In reality however, the nuclear and missile programmes take the lead. Although the government carried out some carefully and cautiously orchestrated economic reforms, the propaganda of the nuclear program dominates both domestic and international headlines. A strong defence against the perceived aggressive neighbours is used to rally support for the leadership. The second and the third reasons for North Korea’s strategy are directed at China and the US: it wants to make it clear that it cannot be pushed around, although it remains economically dependent on China. So far, Kim and his elitist clique can afford this precarious balancing act because the complex US-Chinese relations in the region create space for North Korean risk-taking. When former US President Obama announced further sanctions against North Korea after the September 2016 nuclear test, the Pyongyang foreign ministry ridiculed them as ‘laughable and insignificant’. The US has hardly any further sanction mechanisms left since they have already been pushed to the limit. Whether technology exports, food supplies, control of North Korean shipping routes, travel restrictions for political, military and economic leaders or international financial transactions, few options remain.
Did the new US government step into North Korea’s trap by deploying additional nuclear forces into the region? That is possibly what the Kim government wants; to strike a deal with the US on nuclear weapons, an avenue that all previous US governments have avoided. How realistic is military action when President Trump assures his Japanese and South Korean allies that “all options are on the table”? During the Clinton administration, military options have been considered and the conclusion at that time was that a million casualties in North and South Korea could be the price of a military attack on the North. This situation has not changed in principle; in fact the Northern threat might even be more dangerous now. Realistically, the show of force by the US Navy is simply a symbolic and demonstrative act. More interesting with regards to North Korea is the timing of the recent US military attack in Syria, firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at an airfield. This took place exactly at the time when Chinese President Xi visited US President Trump in Florida. The military action in Syria, combined with US Navy movement into the sea near North Korea were also addressed towards China, looking for a Chinese governmental response to the crisis.
Today, the economic future and consequently the political survival of the Kim regime lies largely in the hands of China. North Korean oil and food imports all come from China. The tremors of the North Korean nuclear test are being felt in Beijing, but the Chinese government is conspicuously silent, despite its protege’s provocative action and subsequent embarrassment to its mentor. Why is China’s reaction so timid, especially in light of their repeated claim that it is not willing to tolerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Simply, China could not entertain the collapse of the North Korean government. Neither a chaotic disintegration nor an orderly North-South Korean unification is an acceptable political perspective in the eyes of the Chinese government. A fall of the Kim government would most likely result in double-digit millions of refugees crossing the North Korean-Chinese border, leading to a political vacuum into which South Korea and their American ally could advance up to the Chinese border. These are simply catastrophic scenarios for the Chinese leadership. The US-Chinese relations in Asia, which are characterised by numerous conflicts, geopolitical competition and opposing interests, could be shifted to a US advantage if South Korea and the US were to move into North Korea.
Two other reasons seemingly prevent a solution to this extended dilemma. If China were to substantially reduce or even stop its economic support for North Korea, it is not unreasonable to assume that Russia may get involved. So far, Russia was a quiet observer as a member of the so called Six-Party-Talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. A tougher Chinese North Korea policy could open up another area, in addition to Europe and Syria, where Russia could articulate its global aspirations vis-à-vis the United States. More importantly, a strengthened South Korean and US military posture could provide North Korea reasons to insist on the importance of its own military strength. North Korean officials regularly claim “that our small country is cornered by several nuclear powers” and assert that the only credible defence is its nuclear weapons program. The most recent concern is the US-South Korean decision to deploy the modern Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system in South Korea. This deployment decision has not only led to harsher reactions in Pyongyang, but it also completely froze US-Chinese cooperation regarding the North Korean nuclear program. The Chinese government interprets THAAD as yet another American attempt at containing Chinese influence in Asia. Washington claims that the missile system is exclusively directed at South Korea’s defence against North Korean missile attacks and would not change the strategic balance between the US and China. However, the Chinese government views it differently. The effects are the typical action-reaction armament program decisions, and reciprocal finger pointing and blaming of the antagonists in this volatile region. A constructive US-Chinese containment policy of the North Korean nuclear program seems impossible in the situation; it is merely a question of time until the world again will witness the next North Korean nuclear test.