Stephen R Nagy analyses the US’smaximum pressure approach to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and Pyongyang’spushback

Pyongyang’s skilful Winter Olympic diplomacy has temporarily decreased tension between the North and the South, giving it valuable time to consolidate both its missile and nuclear strategic deterrent which is squarely aimed at the US. This temporary lull in friction has placed South Korea’s President Moon in the impossible situation in which he had to share Seoul’s hard-earned Winter Olympic spotlight with Pyongyang in exchange for no guarantees to de-escalate the friction on the peninsula or to work together towards denuclearisation.

The high-level delegation from North Korea, including Kim’s own sister Kim Yo Jong,and the invitation of President Moon to Pyongyang on August 15, 2018 will ensure that South Korea will be unable to be an integral member in the US’s efforts to exert maximum pressure on the North to denuclearise and halt missile development.

Regional stakeholders have come to similar conclusions about the North’s tactics. Dr Masashi Nishihara, President of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Security(RIPS), argues that Kim Jong-un’s long-term objective is to unite the Korean peninsula under North Korea’s leadership. He adds that Kim’s ‘smile offensive’ is to make the South stand against the US belligerency.

Scott Snyder, Director of US-Korea Program, Council of Foreign Relations, echoes Dr. Nishihara, stressing that ‘by playing the sister card, VP Pence’s visit to discredit the North was overshadowed’ and ‘Pyongyang was able to employ its Uri-minzokki-ri (meaning “our nation together”) tactic oftrying to elevate the sentiment of an autonomous unification approach that elevates racial commonality above everything else while resisting interference from outside powers’. For Snyder, this ploy is ‘part of the strategy in an apparent effort to divide the US and South Korea’.

Others such as Dongmin Lee, Professor of International relations at Dankook University in South Korea, argue that the invitation is a ruse. ‘Why would they give up regime security before negotiation?’ he asks. Denuclearisation and demilitarisation is not as simple as a mere negotiation, adds Dr Lee, as 40 per cent of the North’s economy is dependent on the military.

As long as North Korea threatens Japan with nuclear weapons, Japan has little choice but to maintain its unity with the US

The US and Japan, the two most proactive countries on the frontline of the efforts to denuclearise and halt missile development, will now have to rethink their strategy to counter the North’s quest for a nuclear strategic deterrent. Dr Nishihara believes Prime Minister Abe and President Trump share the view that they should maximise their pressures against the North and that they will continue to do so. This means that they will press the North even harder. However, Abe will have to do this at the expense of Japanese abductees. Even so, as long as North Korea threatens Japan with nuclear weapons, Japan has little choice but to maintain its unity with the US.

This won’t be easy with Seoul being courted by Pyongyang’s insincere efforts to engage the South and both China and Russia advocating engagement, negotiation and their dual freeze proposal (freeze in testing and development for a freeze in US-South Korea military joint training). For Beijing and Moscow, a nuclear Pyongyang is neither a threat nor a worry. On the contrary, the North’s efforts to secure a strategic nuclear deterrent and its effective strategy to fracture the anti-North Korean trifecta of the US-South Korea-Japan serves their interests as well by attenuating the effectiveness of the US’s alliance network in the region.

At the same time, the North’s provocations serve Beijing and Moscow’s interests by distracting the US through diluting both its diplomatic and military resources on North Korea.The North is a useful geopolitical agitation to deflect focus on Beijing and Moscow’s more pressing national interests of territorial acquisition and consolidation in the South and East China Seas (SCS and ECS)in the case China, and reversing the direction of the deepening Russo-US schism in the case of Russia.

Anna Kireeva, Associate Professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, argues that ‘South-North dialogue is the indispensable element of the second stage of a Russia-China roadmap on resolution of security problems on the Korean peninsula. Russia is likely to propose and push for multilateral talks as well as parallel bilateral ones following the results of warming North-South ties’.

Despite their strategic hopes, Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow maybe underestimating the US’s (and Japan’s) commitment to stopping Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear development. Washington understands that acquisition would result in a cascade of negative ramifications for the US’s security and its hard-earned security footprint in the region. Any erosion of this ‘made in America’ security architecture would jeopardise the US’s ability to fulfil its commitment to its alliance partners in the region.It would weaken the US’s efforts to push back against Beijing in the SCS and ECS, and might push states in Southeast Asia into Beijing’s diplomatic orbit.

SECRET WEAPON: Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo Jong (c) with South Korean president Moon Jae-in (r)
SECRET WEAPON: Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo Jong (c) with South Korean president Moon Jae-in (r)

Each of these would weaken the US’s global and regional dominance and decrease its unparalleled security enjoyed in the post-WW 2 period. These are unacceptable for Washington and we should expect the US and Japan to find creative ways to push back hard against the North’s ingenious if not insincere Olympic diplomacy.

North Korea is not only a nuclear weapons threat. Pyongyang has a proven track record of biological and chemical weapons proliferation and there is some evidence that they tried to sell nuclear material in the Middle East to non-state actors for hard currency. Moreover,the conundrum of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities also stems from a potential accident that could emit radiation into Northeast China,thus disrupting socio-economic stability, according to Dr Tong Zhao, a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

For Beijing and Moscow, a nuclear Pyongyang is neither a threat nor a worry

With these challenges in mind, Professor Kireeva believes that the US is likely to try to derail talks, despite the North’s desire to make progress with its Olympics diplomacy. She is pessimistic and holds the view that the US is likely to respond with large-scale US-South Korean drills emulating invasion of the North, possibly provokingPyongyang to react with another test which could undermine its rapprochement with the South.

The US’s maximum pressure in 2017 did bear fruit in the effort to bring more consolidated and comprehensive pressure on North Korea. Strangling sanctions, diplomatic isolation and diplomatic coordination have left Pyongyang few cards to play. Consequently, the North has returned to its tried and tested tactics of maximising the pre-existing fractures within the region and amongst its stakeholders through its Olympic diplomacy.

This wily subterfuge should be seen for what it is: a clever ploy to secure an invaluable reduction of tensions to consolidate its nuclear strategic deterrent and ICBM capabilities. If achieved, the secured regime will begin fulfilling its byungjin objective (parallel nuclear and economic development), resulting in a transformation of the security calculus in Seoul and Tokyo and leading to an arms race in the region.

This would not be in the long-term interests of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington and as such, they must resist the North’s seductive chicanery and remain committed to working together to denuclearise the peninsula, even at the cost of giving up reunification.

Stephen R Nagy is a Senior Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at the International Christian University, Tokyo, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation (APF) in Canada

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