North Korea Crisis: Serious Diplomacy Needed

9 august 2017

Sir Malcolm Rifkind - Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom between 1992-1997

Resume: The crisis with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme is often compared to the similar confrontation the international community had with Iran. It would be encouraging if we could expect a similar outcome.

On that occasion Russia worked, successfully, with the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France and Germany to negotiate an agreement with Iran which should ensure that it does not have nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.

There are, however, two fundamental differences between the example of Iran and the current confrontation with North Korea. These differences make the comparison of limited value.

Firstly, North Korea, unlike Iran, already possesses crude nuclear warheads. It has also demonstrated that it has a ballistic missile capability that suggests it will be able to launch nuclear weapons against the United States mainland within a few years.

These North Korean nuclear weapons would also be able to reach targets in Russia and China however improbable such a threat must seem at the present time.

The second difference is, of course, that Iran, for many years, protested that it neither had any nuclear weapons nor any desire to have them. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in comparison, goes out of his way to boast that he now has these weapons, will soon have the intercontinental missiles to carry them, and that the United States is his most preferred target.

Given that bellicose rhetoric by Kim Jong-un, President Trump and the United States can hardly be accused of exaggerating or misunderstanding the threat they will face in a few years if action is not taken now to deter or stop the North Korean dictator.

There is no simple solution available to resolve this crisis. Of course, the North Koreans would lose any all out war with the United States. Their economy and their resources are puny in comparison to the Americans. Any attempt to use either their crude nuclear weapons or their conventional forces would result in massive damage both to their military capability and their economic infrastructure, and would, probably, lead to the collapse of the regime.

But before Pyongyang was defeated, South Korea, and Seoul, in particular, would sustain tens of thousands of casualties from an attack by the North Koreans using their artillery massed near the border combined with an invasion of South Korea by conventional forces from the North.

It is already clear that while not excluding a military solution the United States, for these reasons and others, is deeply anxious to avoid a war with North Korea.  The most convincing evidence of this has been the speech given by Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson to the State Department press corps last week. 

In that speech, which he must have cleared with President Trump, Tillerson said “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek the collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunion of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel”.

At one level it was a remarkable statement as the United States has longed for the collapse of the North Korean communist regime for many years. There is no doubt that in an ideal situation this is what they would still wish.

But it is equally clear that the priority for Washington for the foreseeable future is limited to stopping and, if possible, reversing the North Korean rush to nuclear weapon status.

That is an objective shared by Russia and China. Not only has this been stated on many occasions by Moscow and Beijing. The recent unanimous vote in the UN Security Council, imposing the most stringent economic sanctions ever on North Korea, is clear evidence that they mean it. The Security Council, for once, has taken action and not just made speeches. This must have given a serious shock to Kim Jong-un.

Welcome though this has been there remains considerable doubt as to whether Russia and China are prepared to strike as well as wound. Are they prepared to use all means, short of military force, to compel the North Korean leader to come to the negotiating table? 

It has, sometimes, seemed that they are not. Rather Moscow and Beijing have appeared to wish to use the fear of North Korean nuclear weapons as a means of putting pressure on the United States to remove its missile defence capability from South Korea. 

It has also been suggested that if the North Koreans are to be persuaded to stop their nuclear weapons programme the United States should reduce, or even end, its military support to South Korea and withdraw its troops and bases from the region.

Furthermore, there also appears to have been concern that too much economic pressure on Kim Jong-un might lead to the collapse of his regime and the reunification of the Korean peninsula by South Korea with American support.

If these considerations have been present, it is likely that they have given comfort to Kim Jong-un, reduced his willingness to compromise and not served Russia’s and China’s own long term interests.

Firstly, if a bellicose, nuclear-armed North Korea becomes an accepted reality that is bound to result in South Korea and Japan becoming more dependent on the United States, rather than less, over the next few decades.

The only alternative would be for both these countries to conclude that they had no option but to become nuclear weapon states themselves. There is, already, the beginning of such a debate in Japan. 

Both Russia and China would then be faced, not with a denuclearized Korean peninsula but with its three nearest neighbours, Japan, South and North Korea all being armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

To avoid such an outcome the United States, Russia and China should work closely together, with Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and France to achieve a diplomatic, negotiated solution with North Korea to the current crisis.

Perhaps Iran is a good precedent after all. It was because of the international solidarity both at the Security Council and bilaterally, in enforcing powerful economic, banking and trade sanctions on Iran  that the Iranian regime, including its Supreme Leader concluded that a negotiated agreement, which must rule out nuclear weapons, was in their interests as well as that of the international community. 

Serious diplomacy worked in the case of Iran. If combined with the fiercest level of economic, financial and trading sanctions it would have a better prospect of success than any of the alternatives in the case of North Korea as well. 

The sooner we begin the better.

The Valdai Discussion Club

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