Recent North Korean nuclear tests have triggered a sense of urgency in the United States and its Asian allies South Korea and Japan. As the reclusive country gets closer to being able to target American territories with nuclear devices, the specter of decoupling the policy objectives of Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo is hanging over the American-led “hub and spokes” alliance system. The idea of developing indigenous nuclear weapons is gaining ground in South Korea, while Japan is gradually moving toward a more autonomous defense posture. China, meanwhile, cannot help but be concerned by these developments.
More than a direct threat to the three allied countries, therefore, the North Korean nuclear program could ultimately destroy the East Asian security architecture, with devastating consequences for the stability of the entire Asia-Pacific region. The need to tackle the North Korean nuclear issue is urgent, but the number of plausible options is extremely limited. A look at the present list suggests only an entente cordiale between the US and China has the potential to relieve the North Korea headache.
Option 1: Military Intervention
The military option cannot solve the problem unless it leads to the US and its allies completely disarming North Korea. This option is unrealistic for a number of reasons. First, even assuming a rapid decapitation of the regime in Pyongyang, the civilian cost would be hardly bearable for the democratic governments in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo. The South Korean capital and its conurbation, home to 25 million people and more than 200,000 American citizens, would likely be crushed by artillery shelling, while Japan would be targeted by hundreds of medium- and intermediate-range missiles. Second, it is doubtful whether US President Donald Trump would be able to obtain the backing of Congress for such an undertaking given his contested domestic record so far. Lastly, ambiguity remains about the likely Chinese position in case of conflict, a key element in the equation for a rational decision to wage war.
Option 2: Nuclear Recognition
Another option is to abandon the objective of denuclearizing North Korea. After the latest and sixth nuclear test, which had a TNT equivalent of between 100 and 600 kilotons, Pyongyang can credibly claim to have joined the club of nuclear weapon states. By accepting this state of affairs, the US could more easily resume dialogue with North Korea and focus on making sure the latter becomes a responsible stakeholder in East Asia. After all, it is not obvious that a nuclear North Korea, if properly incorporated into the regional architecture, would be more destabilizing than say India or Pakistan.
The drawbacks of this option are many, however. Apart from the fact that it would represent an admission of powerlessness for American diplomacy, the credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime would be gravely affected, raising the prospect of a widespread domino effect. Though North Korea is not the first country outside the group of five nuclear weapon states recognized under international law to acquire the bomb, its nuclear program has been made so visible on the international scene, and the US has spent so much political capital trying to curb it, that accepting the country’s entry into the nuclear club would have a high symbolic value. Otherwise, the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, already fragile, could become the first victim of the domino effect, with dramatic consequences for the Middle East and beyond.
Option 3: Peaceful Denuclearization
The last option, peaceful denuclearization, is in the middle of the spectrum of these other two. It discards the use of force but rejects the North Korean fait accompli. Denuclearizing North Korea in a peaceful manner does not mean that coercion should not be exercised; quite the contrary. The country will never relinquish its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a peace treaty and a pact of non-aggression, though such agreements are key ingredients of successful coercive diplomacy. This is because Pyongyang’s uncertainty about American intentions will endure and because nuclear weapons are an important instrument of domestic propaganda for the North Korean regime. A strong stick, in the form of economic sanctions, must thus accompany the carrot.
During an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council convened the day after the latest nuclear test, US Ambassador Nikki Haley called for the “strongest sanctions” against North Korea. The draft resolution circulated among members of the Council later that week provided for an embargo on crude oil and refined petroleum products, the freeze of financial assets, including those of leader Kim Jong-un, and the prohibition for third countries to host North Korean workers on their soil. If adopted and properly implemented, these sanctions would have had the potential to asphyxiate the North Korean economy and bring the regime to its knees.
China is central to enacting the sanctions that could force North Korea to trade nuclear weapons for American security guarantees. Not only does the country represent some 90% of North Korea’s trade, it also satisfies the bulk of North Korean oil needs. However, though Beijing expressed willingness to implement additional sanctions in response to the sixth nuclear test, the probability that it would take the risk of pushing Pyongyang into a corner was virtually nil. The US, indeed, eventually had to water down sanctions to win support from China. The resolution adopted by the UN Security Council on September 12 replaced the oil and petroleum products embargo by a cap on supply, did not freeze Kim Jong-un’s financial assets, and refrained from asking for the expulsion of North Korean workers overseas. The reason is that behind the North Korean nuclear headache lays an enormously more critical issue: the fate of East Asia’s security architecture.
China is concerned by Pyongyang’s provocations and the South Korean and Japanese military expansions they trigger. Nevertheless, the status quo, and even a more nuclear capable and belligerent North Korea, is preferable from the Chinese point of view to the prospect of a destabilization of the regime. Such a scenario alarms Beijing because of uncertainty regarding the intentions of the US and thus the likely geostrategic consequences. As a continental country relatively shielded by seas from the military might of the US-Japan alliance, China’s priority is to prevent the US-South Korea alliance from positioning ground troops at its border. In other words, it needs to keep a buffer state in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Given the proximity of its capital to the North Korean border, this is seen as a matter of national survival for China.
Beijing has legitimate security concerns that need to be considered and to some extent respected. Instead of indirectly, but obviously, threatening China with trade sanctions if it does not get things moving on the North Korean nuclear issue, the Trump administration could rather engage in a comprehensive dialogue on the future of the East Asian security architecture. This starts with discussions about the nature of the potential successor to the current North Korean regime, the status of a possibly reunified Korean Peninsula, and the fate of US troops in South Korea. As long as the US ignores China’s security concerns, the latter should not be expected to effectively pressure North Korea. A turbulent buffer state is better than none. To summarize, it is with Beijing, not Pyongyang, that Washington must reach an entente cordiale.
The Need for Deescalation
In the meantime, there is an urgent need to deescalate the situation. Though none of the major actors want war, because all would suffer substantial costs, the possibility of conflict through misperception and overreaction cannot be ruled out. In times of crisis, when events unfold rapidly, consistency of behavior and clear communication are crucial. And the US is performing poorly on both fronts at present.
The Trump administration has sent confusing signals to North Korea over the past few months. Some (including myself) argued that by striking Syria in early April, after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against a rebel-held town, it recovered its credibility in the eyes of both North Korea and its allies. Unlike President Barack Obama in 2013, Trump had taken a retaliatory action against a country that had crossed an American red line. This credibility has been affected by subsequent behavioral inconsistencies. The latest example is the American response to the sixth nuclear test. Unlike after previous tests, the US did not send nuclear-capable bombers near the North Korean border in a show of strength and South Korea was left alone in conducting military exercises.
Perhaps more importantly, the Trump administration is ambiguous in communicating its position to Pyongyang. After two tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, Trump warned that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.” otherwise it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A few hours after the latest nuclear test, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that “any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam or our allies, will be met with a massive military response.” The two declarations differ regarding the target of the threat to which the US would retaliate, with Mattis including allies. Moreover, the term “threat” is here extremely ambiguous. Is firing a ballistic missile above Japanese territory, as happened in late August, a threat to an ally, and maybe to the US? Pyongyang has no way of knowing how far it can go without running a credible risk of military retaliation.
If behavioral consistency and clear communication by the US can help prevent the situation from spiraling out of control, they cannot by themselves bring deescalation. In addition to stopping its provocative and obviously pointless rhetoric, the Trump administration could also consider China’s proposed “two-way suspension deal” as a means to appease tensions. As I recently argued, such a deal would simultaneously reopen dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington and ensure China’s engagement in dealing with North Korea. The US must overcome the psychological pain of admitting that its international domination and margin of maneuver have reduced tremendously since the beginning of the 21st century. An entente cordiale with China is today necessary to deal with the North Korean problem, as well as other East Asian security issues.
Dr. Lionel Fatton is Lecturer of International Relations, Webster University, Geneva; a Research Associate, CERI-Sciences Po, Paris; and a Research Collaborator, Meiji University’s Research Institute for the History of Global Arms Transfer, Tokyo.