North Korea Pushes its Luck!

In the three months since NewNations last reported on North Korea in June 2017, tensions have remained high on and around the peninsula. As he had done throughout this year, Kim Jong-un forged ahead with ballistic missile testing, at a rapid rate and with growing success.

In an ominous new milestone, twice in July – on July 4 and July 28 – Pyongyang launched what it claimed were intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the US mainland. Both were ‘lofted’ on mainly vertical trajectories, landing in the Sea of Japan / East Sea. But the great heights they reached and the time they were airborne left no doubt that, if fired on a normal mainly horizontal trajectory, these were more powerful than any previous DPRK missile. July 28’s rocket splashed down 998 kilometres east of the peninsula, having reached an apogee (maximum altitude) of 3725 kilometres and flown for 47 minutes. US experts mostly agreed that they have the range to reach the continental US; though accuracy is another matter, and it is unclear whether they have yet mastered the challenge of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Yet complacency would be ill-advised. On August 23 DPRK media showed Kim Jong-un visiting the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defence Sciences. Photographs offered tantalising (and no doubt deliberate) glimpses of new rocket designs and machinery, suggesting that yet larger missiles are in the works. 

Clearly such a challenge requires a careful response, but it did not initially receive one. The bellicose rhetoric which has long been Pyongyang’s stock in trade, but which its interlocutors had hitherto usually sought to defuse, was matched by some of the language emanating from Washington; not least from a US President unlike any of his predecessors. Rather than weigh his every word carefully and diplomatically, as befits the leader of the most powerful country on earth, Donald Trump appears to say, and to tweet, whatever comes into his head, or his spleen. For the US to match the DPRK’s menaces with threats of its own is no way to solve the North Korean question. Indeed, it potentially puts at risk the very security for South Korea that US deterrence has helped maintain on the peninsula for 64 years, ever since the Armistice – there was never a peace treaty – which ended the ruinous and bloody Korean War in 1953.

Small wonder that the South’s new liberal President Moon Jae-in, already dismayed at the North’s brusque rejection of all his many olive branches – in sharp contrast to the hard line of his now disgraced and jailed predecessor Park Geun-hye, Moon had hoped to return to the ‘sunshine’ policy of engagement which Seoul practised during the decade 1998-2007 – also felt moved to warn on August 15 that only South Korea can make the decision to initiate military action on the peninsula. Moon’s public assurance to his people that Washington would do nothing without consulting its Korean ally served only to highlight fears, which the outgoing Park government’s Unification Minister had also voiced earlier, that under Trump the potential risk of rash unilateralism was in fact only too real. Mirroring Pyongyang’s own tendentiously dyadic world-view, as if the US and DPRK were the sole actors involved, some of Trump’s comments also seemed to imply that this was a duel of two; rather than a complex conflict in which other states – not least South Korea and Japan, both in the front line and as such already for years within range of the Kim regime’s missiles – also had a vital stake.

The highlight, or nadir, of this competitive braggadocio came in August. Trump started it, warning on August 8 that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States”, else it would face “fire and fury.” He liked that so much, he said it twice: “Fire, and fury, and frankly power.” Naturally Pyongyang could not let such a challenge pass. Days later it warned that Kim Jong-un was studying a plan to launch four intermediate-range Hwasong-12 ballistic missiles that would rain “enveloping fire” on waters off Guam. Everyone fell for it. Regional correspondents for western media found themselves hastily dispatched to the somnolent (but bristling with US firepower) South Pacific island, which they reported as calm – if slightly nervous. Might the DPRK really carry out so reckless a threat? James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence, warned that any such missile launch could quickly escalate into war.

Days passed; clocks ticked. Then on August 15 (Liberation Day from Japan in 1945, and a holiday in both Koreas), Kim Jong-un resurfaced after a fortnight’s absence, itself intriguing. Magnanimously, he announced a postponement: he would observe the “foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees” a bit longer before deciding whether to give the order to fire. The world breathed again, with the ineffable Trump even tweeting congratulations to Kim for his “very wise and well reasoned decision.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has emerged as the most moderate voice on North Korea in Trump’s administration, was similarly fulsome, saying that was the kind of gesture Washington had been waiting for. Yet this was a classic DPRK ploy: ratchet up tensions, then claim spurious credit for drawing back from the brink. If Trump really believes the US gained ground in this exchange, he deludes himself. Worse, if he attributes his imaginary success to talking tough, we may be in for more of the same.

Growth, despite sanctions
Rather than matching Pyongyang’s rhetoric, a more responsible reaction (if disappointingly ineffectual to date) is condemnation by international society. On August 6 the UN Security Council passed – unanimously, as ever – yet another resolution, censuring the DPRK for its ICBM tests. UNSCR 2371 further tightened economic sanctions, banning a large swathe of North Korea’s main exports including iron and iron ore, lead and lead ore, and seafood. It was claimed that this could cut Pyongyang’s revenues by as much as one billion US dollars. As ever, much hinges on how far China, now the sole significant trade partner, enforces these new measures. Beijing pledged to do so, but the record suggests it will not do anything which might risk destabilising the Kim regime. Despite anger at Kim’s nuclear and missile antics, China continues to regard the DPRK as a vital buffer state on its northeastern flank.

North Korea has been under UN and other sanctions for over a decade now, ever since its first nuclear test in 2006. The paradox and puzzle for economists is that not only have these failed – unlike with Iran – to force the regime into negotiations, much less economic collapse; but their impact is barely visible. If anything, especially in almost six years of the Kim Jong-un era (he succeeded his father Kim Jong-il on the latter’s death in December 2011), the country – or at least its showpiece capital, Pyongyang – looks to have enjoyed a modest boom, with new construction including multi-storey apartment blocs proceeding apace.

The DPRK has published no statistical series for over half a century. Among those who strive to fill the gap is the Bank of Korea, South Korea’s central bank. In the past BOK’s figures, whose methodology is unclear, have tended to the low side. But its latest estimates, covering Northern economic performance in 2016 and published on July 21, seem to confirm this surprising resilience and growth. On this reckoning, North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 3.9% last year: its best performance this century, and faster than the South itself managed in 2016. (Nonetheless the Northern economy remains minuscule compared to the South’s, whose GDP is 25 times larger; the gap in per capita income is 22:1.) It remains to be seen whether the latest tranche of UNSC and other sanctions – several countries, including the US and Japan, also added their own bilateral measures on top – are any more effective in hobbling the Kim regime’s WMD programmes than their predecessors have been.

Winding down?
As NewNations went to press, the Sturm und Drang continued. Ulchi Freedom Guardian, one of two sets of regular annual joint US-ROK military exercises, was held as usual in August; starting on August 21 and due to conclude on August 31. As always, North Korea denounced these war games as a prelude to invasion, warning that they would drive the situation further towards “catastrophe”. For good measure this year, with a few British and Australian troops taking part, both those countries felt the lash of Pyongyang’s tongue too; the UK was warned that it faces a “miserable end.”

Yet here’s the thing. Last year, rising tensions on the peninsula were reflected in the enlarged scale of these exercises – yet this time, the reverse occurred. As the leading Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo noted on August 21, the number of US forces participating was 25,000 in 2016 but only 17,500 in 2017. Similarly, plans to bring in significant additional US strategic assets for the exercises, such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, seem to have been dropped. Behind the fiery rhetoric, that gesture will not have gone unnoticed in Pyongyang.

In the ceaseless ebb and flow of peninsular politics, after a long hot spring and summer of war talk, might we be heading towards a calmer autumn of diplomacy? That will not be easy. Kim Jong-un seems uninterested, while no other power may yet be ready to formally acknowledge a grim truth, which is nonetheless the ineluctable starting-point for any fresh negotiations. The ‘nuclear genie’ is out of the bottle; the DPRK has succeeded in its quest to become a viable de facto nuclear state. Henceforth the best to hope for is a monitored freeze; full denuclearization is no longer on the cards. That is deeply unpalatable, yet half a loaf is better than no bread – and much better than a recurrence or continuation of the tensions seen this year.

Let the final word go to Steve Bannon, until recently Trump’s director of strategy and by his own lights an intellectual. In a rashly frank and wide-ranging interview which led to his being sacked, among much else the impeccably right-wing Bannon sharply skewered and rejected all the war talk in Washington on North Korea. His exact words deserve quoting in full:

“There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes, from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”

Ten million is a slight exaggeration, but the equation as such is correct. The Economist had earlier gamed such a possible war scenario in chilling detail, as part of the cover story in its August 5 issue. This showed Trump and Kim enveloped in a mushroom cloud under the headline: “It could happen.”
Yes, it could; but at such an appalling and self-defeaing cost, with any luck it will not.

Aidan Foster-Carter