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Crisis in North Korea: behind the escalating standoff in Northeast Asia

Crisis in North Korea: behind the escalating standoff in Northeast Asia

Nathan VanderKlippe explores the current relationship between Pyongyang, China and the West – and what history tells us about what might happen next

The warning could hardly have been more clear. If the U.S. and South Korea don't halt massive annual military exercises now under way, the result will be "a major cause of escalation of tension that might turn into actual war," a North Korean representative said this week.

Days earlier, North Korea simultaneously launched four missiles in the direction of Japan. In response, a U.S. military aircraft landed at an airbase just south of Seoul to deliver the first components of an anti-missile defence system that is now being rushed into place – prompting a furious rebuke from China.

In the background lies the giddy ambition of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, who appears to be nearing success in his pursuit of a nuclear bomb that can be affixed to a missile and delivered to the continental United States.

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Pyongyang's looming moment of technological triumph, an achievement it has sought for decades, has suddenly thrust northeast Asia into a new period of tensions and recriminations. Both sides have darkly discussed the dangers of a catastrophic pre-emptive nuclear strike.

It's a renewed moment of crisis sparked by a country that has spent decades stoking fears, often with a mastery that has impressed even its critics. Impoverished, barred from trade with much of the world and with little economic clout, Pyongyang has nonetheless once again managed to make itself the centre of global attention.


Is North Korea crazy?

No. Not, at least, according to scientists who have put serious thought into this very question.

That might not seem to make sense: Pyongyang's propaganda – the claim that Mr. Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, invented the hamburger being just one example – makes it the subject of international ridicule, and its leaders – the Kim regime – have been pilloried as delusional madmen.

But in its foreign relations, North Korea has consistently defied what political scientists call the "madman theory" of its conduct. One academic paper cited humanitarian organizations that found North Korean officials were "rational actors in terms of seeking to satisfy interests and achieve objectives." Another observed that "far from exhibiting impulsive behaviour after 1950, North Korea's leadership has shown extreme caution."

Some military analysts even call North Korea "predictable," based on the fact that it tends to clearly announce its planned actions and then follow through with them, even if the timing is often a surprise.

North Korea, too, often wins plaudits for its ability to secure its goals, often by playing much stronger military and economic powers against each other. "They have a very clear strategy, to drive a wedge – divide and rule," said Choi Kang, director of the Centre for Foreign Policy and National Security at South Korea's Asan Institute for Policy Studies. That doesn't exactly endear Pyongyang to Washington, Beijing or Seoul, but it also doesn't make North Korea insane.

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Take the dissent it has sown between China and South Korea over the installation of U.S.-based anti-missile technology, which has dramatically shifted China away from rapprochement with South Korea and made Beijing worried that its own national security interests are being undermined. The argument from North Korea? If you want stability, "you have to help us," said Mr. Choi. "North Korea is manipulating Chinese concerns in a very clever way."


What exactly does North Korea want?

In military terms, North Korea's primary objective is a reliable, sophisticated nuclear weapon that poses a credible threat to its neighbours and the United States alike. Then, the recognition that it has joined the exclusive club of nuclear powers.

Tests send a message, but have a very clear technological purpose as well. "Do you know how much money it costs to launch missiles?" said Zhang Lian'gui, a professor at the Institute of International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China. "Their main purpose is still to develop their nuclear program and improve the quality of their missiles."

North Korean potential missile ranges

Scud B/C/ER:

290-965 kms

Musudan:

3,541 kms

1

4

KN-11:

965 kms

KN-14:

9,978 kms

2

5

Nodong:

1,287 kms

KN-08:

11,587 kms

3

6

6

India

5

4

Russia

China

3

2

North

Korea

1

Australia

Canada

Japan

U.S.

Estimated

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

North Korean potential missile ranges

North Korean potential missile ranges

North Korean potential missile ranges

Scud B/C/ER:

290-965 kms

Scud B/C/ER:

290-965 kms

Scud B/C/ER:

290-965 kms

Musudan:

3,541 kms

Musudan:

3,541 kms

Musudan:

3,541 kms

1

1

1

4

4

4

KN-11:

965 kms

KN-11:

965 kms

KN-11:

965 kms

KN-14:

9,978 kms

KN-14:

9,978 kms

KN-14:

9,978 kms

2

2

2

5

5

5

Nodong:

1,287 kms

Nodong:

1,287 kms

Nodong:

1,287 kms

KN-08:

11,587 kms

KN-08:

11,587 kms

KN-08:

11,587 kms

3

3

3

6

6

6

6

6

6

India

India

India

5

5

5

4

4

4

Russia

Russia

Russia

China

China

China

3

3

3

2

2

2

North

Korea

North

Korea

North

Korea

1

1

1

Australia

Australia

Australia

Canada

Canada

Canada

Japan

Japan

Japan

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

Estimated

Estimated

Estimated

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

North Korean potential missile ranges

Scud B/C/ER: 290-965 kms

1

6

India

KN-11: 965 kms

5

2

Nodong: 1,287 kms

4

3

Russia

China

3

Musudan: 3,541 kms

4

2

KN-14: 9,978 kms

5

North

Korea

1

KN-08: 11,587 kms

6

Australia

Canada

Japan

U.S.

Estimated

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

Though North Korea has in the past demanded money if it is to give up lucrative arms sales, few experts see its nuclear program as primarily motivated by monetary considerations. Instead, U.S. threats of pre-emptive strikes have long made the Kim dynasty worried that its very survival is at stake. Become nuclear-capable, and North Korea has the ability to exact painful revenge in case of conflict, and its leaders become much harder to dismiss or disrespect.

"They want survival, legitimacy and prosperity, in that order," said John Delury, an expert on North Korea at Yonsei University in Seoul. "Those are not crazy goals," he said. "But they are working on those things from a position of incredible weakness. They are way poorer and much weaker than every one of their neighbours." Nuclear weapons help balance the equation, and allow Pyongyang to seek equality with the U.S., which it wants in order to have equal say in security over the Korean peninsula.


What has worked and what hasn't in getting North Korea to co-operate?

Nuclear negotiations with North Korea are far from an uninterrupted record of failure. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pyongyang signed on to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other measures in which it agreed to forswear nuclear development. The U.S. removed its nuclear arms from the Korean Peninsula in 1991 and, in subsequent negotiations, agreed to provide aid to North Korea, stay out of Pyongyang's internal affairs and provide assistance for new nuclear reactor technology. For several years, international inspectors were allowed into North Korea, and verified that Pyongyang had halted construction on some nuclear facilities. Pyongyang in 1999 also agreed to halt tests of long-range missiles.

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It was not a perfect process, marred by distrust on both sides. Pyongyang was regularly accused of cheating on its non-proliferation commitments and it provoked anger by exporting missiles to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. But in 2000, the U.S. relaxed sanctions on North Korea and said a deal to end missile exports was "tantalizingly close," although it was never finalized.

The inauguration of George W. Bush marked a new era of suspicion. "We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements," Mr. Bush said, later designating North Korea a member of the "axis of evil." His administration in 2002 accused North Korea of running a secret uranium enrichment program. A year later, Pyongyang withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2005, it announced that it had created nuclear weapons.

Still, talks continued and, in 2008, the U.S. removed North Korea from the State Department's list of sponsors of state terrorism.

The history of negotiations between the two sides has been marked by competing demands for talks and harsh measures. Some argue that only through a proper show of force can North Korea be brought to the table.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, has put the deterrence argument succinctly: "If the U.S. is committed to deterring a second Korean War, it should make it clear to Pyongyang that any North Korean military offensive would be met with a devastating retaliation with the goal of extinguishing the trouble-making North Korean state."

Supporters of engagement, meanwhile, say only through discussion can progress be made.

Some of the breakthroughs in the 1990s came after former president Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and hugged Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader. "What he wants is my respect," Mr. Carter had said as he was planning the trip. "And I am going to give it to him."


What is different this time?

Politics, for one. It's not clear who will be in the Blue House, South Korea's presidential quarters, after a court on Friday upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. And with Donald Trump in the White House, it's suddenly hard to discern what line Washington will take after eight years of the Obama administration's "strategic patience."

Mr. Trump famously tweeted that North Korea's development of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile "won't happen!" and there are signs of a more military-oriented posture. James Mattis made Seoul one of his first stops as defence secretary, and South Korea subsequently agreed to the accelerated deployment of U.S. anti-missile technology.

But don't expect a former president to ride in and usher in new talks, like Mr. Carter did in 1994. Two decades ago, North Korea still waffled on its pursuit of nuclear weapons. That's no longer true.

"After round after round of misunderstanding and missed chances, gradually North Korea [became] determined to nuclearize," said Yang Xiyu, a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.

And the past two decades have increased North Korean paranoia, with the Kim family worried the U.S. intends for it a fate like the regimes of Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi.

That means military threats don't work, argues Mr. Yang, who was one of China's lead representatives on six-nation talks a decade ago. Instead, he believes North Korea should be coerced and coaxed to the table through equal measures of hard-hitting sanctions and promises of economic opportunity.

"If we really want to persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, we must create an environment where North Korea can give up their weapons in confidence," he said. "Right now, they have no such confidence at all. They don't trust the U.S. or South Korea. They don't even trust China. They believe only their nuclear weapons can guarantee their security."


What role does China have in all of this?

Mr. Trump has repeatedly blamed Beijing for its neighbour's nuclear advances. "China has … total control over North Korea," the President said last January, while on the campaign trail. "China should solve that problem."

The stakes for Washington and Beijing are very different. China wants to avoid a regime collapse that could unleash an unwelcome flood of refugees or erase North Korea as a buffer between itself and the stockpiles of U.S. weaponry in South Korea. The U.S. has no such concerns.

But with Beijing only 800 kilometres from Pyongyang, China has its own good reasons to oppose North Korean nuclear development, although it has itself been unsuccessful in trying to halt the Kim family's ambitions.

China nonetheless takes a very different view of its role. Beijing should only do three things: "Sanction North Korea; sanction South Korea; promote U.S.-North Korea talks," said Shen Dingli, vice-dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Fudan University.

"China can be an active and positive facilitator, mediator and maker of proposals," said Mr. Yang. It can also help in pushing sanctions. But "that is all the roles China can play," he argued. "Because the root of the nuclear issue lies in security concern, and the key lies with the U.S. and South Korea."


How bad could this get? (Or, is this 2010 all over again?)

For decades, North Korea got away with murder. In 1969, it shot down a U.S. reconnaissance plane, killing the 31-person air crew. Seven years later, North Korean soldiers bludgeoned to death two U.S. Army officers. Each time, the world reacted with little more than fury.

But when North Korea in 2010 sank a South Korean naval ship and shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island – killing, in total, 50 people – Seoul used fighter jets to fire back.

The 2010 clashes in the Korean Peninsula

KEY

CHINA

Northern Line

Limit (NLL)

NORTH

KOREA

Demilitarized

Zone (DMZ)

Sea of Japan

Pyongyang

Korea

Bay

Nov. 23, 2010:

North Korea

fired shots at

Yeonpyeong

Island, killing

four South

Koreans.

Seoul

March 26, 2010:

South Korean

warship Cheonan

sank, killing 46.

A multinational

investigation

blamed a North

Korean torpedo

attack for the

sinking.

SOUTH

KOREA

80

0

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: BBC

The 2010 clashes in the Korean Peninsula

KEY

CHINA

Northern Line

Limit (NLL)

NORTH

KOREA

Demilitarized

Zone (DMZ)

Sea of Japan

Pyongyang

Korea

Bay

Nov. 23, 2010:

North Korea

fired shots at

Yeonpyeong

Island, killing

four South

Koreans.

Seoul

March 26, 2010:

South Korean

warship Cheonan

sank, killing 46.

A multinational

investigation

blamed a North

Korean torpedo

attack for the

sinking.

SOUTH

KOREA

80

0

KM

JAPAN

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: BBC

The 2010 clashes in the Korean Peninsula

KEY

Northern Line

Limit (NLL)

CHINA

Demilitarized

Zone (DMZ)

NORTH

KOREA

Sea of Japan

Pyongyang

Korea

Bay

Nov. 23, 2010:

North Korea

fired shots at

Yeonpyeong

Island, killing

four South

Koreans.

Seoul

March 26, 2010:

South Korean

warship Cheonan

sank, killing 46.

A multinational

investigation

blamed a North

Korean torpedo

attack for the

sinking.

SOUTH

KOREA

80

0

KM

JAPAN

Yellow Sea

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: BBC

The ensuing crisis was described as the closest the two sides had come to battle since the Korean War armistice in 1953. "All the network news came because everyone thought there was going to be a war on the Korean Peninsula," said Yonsei University's Prof. Delury.

He worries the stage has been set for a 2017 repeat. "It's looking a little bit like that, where things start to accelerate really quickly," he said.

Those in favour of attempting dialogue say the risks of not doing so continue to grow. "There's some really tough choices ahead – you either try the diplomacy track and see what's possible, or you live with this cycle and see how bad it gets," said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

But in both Seoul and Washington, calls are emerging for a massive show of force. The U.S. has discussed placing nuclear weapons in South Korea for the first time since 1991. "Stationing strategic assets like bombers or submarines on the Korean peninsula 24-7," should also be considered, said the Asan Institute's Mr. Choi.

Chinese thinkers, meanwhile, see two options: either admit that North Korea has become a nuclear-capable country, or "take decisive measures to solve the nuclear issue," said Prof. Zhang from the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China.

"The North Korean nuclear issue has arrived at a phase where it must get resolved," he said. "If there are continued delays from every side, we will forever lose the chance to keep the peninsula free from nuclear weapons."


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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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