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US in the crosshairs: Why a crisis is looming over the Korean peninsula

Japan and even South Korea may decide that becoming nuclear armed states themselves may be the only effective means of ensuring their security. The emergence of these two countries friendly to India may seriously limit China’s room for manoeuvre

analysis Updated: Oct 25, 2017 18:23 IST
North Korea,China,United States
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un visits the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Academy in this undated photo released by Korean Central News Agency. (REUTERS)

The Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo has warned that North Korea could well be just months away from developing the ability to hit the American mainland with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). The country has already carried out six nuclear tests since 2006 the latest being in September this year. Pyongyang claims the last was a hydrogen bomb but this is doubted by experts.

In parallel with developing its nuclear weapons capability, North Korea has also been conducting a series of missile tests of different range. It has tested ICBMs with a range that could strike the Pacific coast of the US though these are not yet of operational quality. There appear to be problems relating to the missiles’ re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere since in some tests the missiles have been seen to burn up and disintegrate upon re-entry. However, it is a matter of time before these technological glitches are fixed. The development of nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities has proceeded despite strict economic sanctions imposed on the country including by China, its main ally.

China has refrained from applying an economic squeeze on a scale which might lead to a regime collapse in North Korea with all its negative and unpredictable consequences. China is unlikely to accept a situation where it may be inundated with large number of refugees escaping political and economic collapse. Nor would it accept the possible incorporation of the North into South Korea resulting in a much stronger neighbour at its doorstep. Even if South Korea were to exit its military alliance with the US, it would still be difficult for China to accept a reunified Korea. Furthermore, would the South inherit and retain the North’s nuclear weapons after reunification? If this were to happen the security situation in North-East Asia would undergo a dramatic transformation.

The US has been unable to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal which may now number more than a dozen weapons. The focus has therefore shifted to preventing the country from acquiring a delivery capability that extends to the US homeland. But this stance of the US is not reassuring to its allies, South Korea and Japan, who are covered by the US nuclear umbrella. North Korea already has the capability to strike these two countries with fully tested missiles of a shorter range. The US was unable or unwilling to use coercive force to prevent it. If it is now willing to risk using force to prevent North Korea from graduating to a capability to strike the US itself then it may be inferred that the assurance to its allies is of lesser importance. The deployment of the THAD anti-missile system in South Korea and Japan offers some protection but then it has brought China and Russia into the equation since they believe their own nuclear deterrent has been rendered less effective as a result.

North Korea has already crossed the threshold in terms of having a credible nuclear arsenal and a reasonably sophisticated delivery system with intercontinental range. Therefore, the only option short of war to respond to this threat would be to build and deploy an effective and credible deterrent against it. The deployment of THAD would appear to tacitly accept this proposition. But Donald Trump has drawn a line at the acquisition of a delivery capability that threatens the US itself. His National Security Advisor, General HR McMaster said recently

“There are those who have said what about accept and deter? Accept and deter is unacceptable and so this puts us in a situation where we are in a race to resolve this short of military action.”

The American assumption appears to be that China, given its “core interests” in maintaining the status quo in the Korean Peninsula will eventually use its coercive power to defang the North Korean political regime rather than risk a US attack leading to a wider war in the region. This is mostly wishful thinking. The alternative of a diplomatic solution seems unlikely since the North Korean regime sees its survival linked to its acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The fate of Iraq and Libya which gave up their pursuit of nuclear weapons on assurances of regime survival but ended up as targets for military attack is a cautionary tale much cited by Pyongyang. And with the Iran nuclear deal being in jeopardy could the Americans be trusted to deliver on commitments?

What is likely to happen? Only a massive military operation may give the assurance that North Korea has been deprived of its nuclear and missile capabilities but in the bargain there might be consequences far more dangerous than a nuclear armed Pyongyang. Any rational calculation would lead to reconciling with a nuclear armed North Korea and seek to deter it from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. It is possible that Japan and even South Korea may decide that becoming nuclear armed states themselves may be the only effective means of ensuring their security. These developments will fundamentally alter the security situation in Asia-Pacific in unpredictable ways. On balance, the emergence of these two countries friendly to India as nuclear weapon states may not be unwelcome and may seriously limit China’s room for manoeuvre. There will be risks and dangers but preferable to a war on the Korean peninsula.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and is senior fellow, CPR

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 25, 2017 17:47 IST