Of all the policy-makers looking anxiously towards the Korean peninsula, India’s diplomats and officials are likely to be particularly empathetic. They will understand, from their own experience, that moments of crisis — such as the 1999 Kargil War, the 2001 Parliament attack, or the 26/11 Mumbai attacks — have far-reaching effects on a region long after the tension subsides.
Similarly, this latest Korean crisis will leave its imprint on East Asia over the coming months and years, in ways that will impinge on Indian interests.
North Korea is likely to intensify the crisis by conducting a ballistic missile test, adding to the list of increasingly bellicose steps it has taken over the past weeks. These include threats of preemptive nuclear war against the US, promises to ‘cut the windpipes of the enemy’, closure of a joint industrial park it operates with South Korea, demands that foreign embassies leave, and cyber-attacks against its neighbour.
Three years ago, North Korea — then led by Kim Jong-il, the incumbent’s father — covertly sank a South Korean naval ship, and later shelled a South Korean island. Today’s president, Kim Jong-un, is both inexperienced and politically vulnerable, a toxic combination that might push him to take greater risks.
It is not hard to imagine the North’s missile test failing or being shot out of the sky by American interceptors, and for a humiliated Kim to respond with a barrage of artillery against the South. Seoul and Washington then face a challenge with which India is intimately familiar: how do you craft retaliation in a way that stays below your opponent’s nuclear threshold?
But even if the crisis never gets to that stage, its ripples will be felt for some time to come. This is true in at least four ways.
First, the crisis will reinforce Japan’s gradual shift away from pacifism. Japan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already become the first to increase military spending in over a decade. Although that has more to do with China than North Korea, an increasing missile and nuclear threat from Pyongyang has already triggered a debate over whether, for example, Japan’s military should be allowed to shoot down North Korean missiles targeted at the US — forbidden under current interpretations of Japan’s constitution.
Second, this crisis will also reinforce the Obama administration’s so-called ‘pivot’ away from Europe and the Middle East and towards Asia. In response to North Korea’s actions, the US has deployed a formidable array of hardware in East Asia that includes two destroyers capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, a powerful sea-based radar, a missile defence system, the B2 and B52 bombers, and the F22 stealth fighter. We have to consider the possibility that some of these forces might end up permanently deployed in the Pacific, changing the military balance in the region.
Third, the US is increasingly worried that South Korea might seek its own nuclear weapons if it feels inadequately supported. Recently, MJ Chung, a member of the South Korean parliament, demanded that American tactical nuclear weapons be reintroduced to South Korea (they were withdrawn two decades ago) and demanded that Seoul start “thinking the unthinkable” about its own nuclear capability.
American officials have labelled these suggestions ‘ridiculous’, on the basis that they can deliver a nuclear weapon to North Korea from anywhere on the planet. Seoul, however, wants a tangible sign of American commitment. The result might be more nuclear capable assets in the region.
Finally, the irony is that China, the one country that might have curbed North Korea’s excesses, will be the net loser of these three trends. Growing Japanese strength and a deepening US presence will inevitably blunt some of China’s capabilities.
What does all this mean for New Delhi? India has reason to be concerned about the proliferation of missile defence platforms in the region. If Beijing fears that it will become harder to use missiles, it will simply build more of them, and potentially accelerate its own missile defence efforts.
This can only make India feel more vulnerable. However, India will be glad to see the dilution of Chinese military power, particularly if it distracts Beijing from any further incursions in the Indian Ocean. Kim Jong-un may not realise it, but his inexplicable posturing might be adding to the slow churn of Asia’s strategic balance.
Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. The views expressed by the author are personal.