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North Korea: August 2017 update

Published Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Tensions have risen alarmingly in the Korean peninsula during the course of 2017. North Korea appears to be making faster progress towards having a nuclear weapons system that can reach the US than many observers expected. What have been the responses of the US, China, South Korea and Japan to developments since the beginning of this year?

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US president Donald Trump has declared that the era of “strategic patience” that characterised the presidency of his predecessor, Barack Obama, is over. All options – including military action – are now, it is said, on the table. The issue is again near the top of the US’s foreign policy agenda. While some struggle to identify a coherent new strategy under President Trump, others argue that what has emerged is one of “maximum pressure and engagement” (with the latter for the future, once the right conditions have been created).

President Trump has called on China to do more to end North Korea’s nuclear programme but doubts remain as to how far it will be willing to go. Following two apparently successful tests of ICBMs by North Korea that can reach parts of the US in July, his rhetoric became increasingly colourful.

Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan watch on with mounting concern at the escalating tensions but do not necessarily see entirely eye-to-eye over how best to respond. Japan broadly supports Trump’s approach – a position reinforced at the end of August when North Korea fired a ballistic missile that flew over its northern island, Hokkaido. South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, was elected in April promising to renew attempts at engagement with the North but equally does not want to fall out with the US.

Although the geo-political (and rhetorical) stakes have certainly risen, few experts give much credence to the efficacy of the military options available to the US and its allies. While North Korea could be defeated, it is difficult to see how they could be implemented without large-scale military and civilian losses in South Korea and Japan. China still fears regime collapse in the North above all else.

Views nonetheless differ markedly over the best (or least- worst) policy mix that should be pursued today. Few think sanctions so far have been effective. But there are big disagreements over why this might be. For some, they’ve barely been tried; for others, North Korea’s leadership are not bothered or likely to be heavily affected by them, no matter how severe they become.

A new, tougher, round of UN sanctions was agreed in August. The US has also started to impose unilateral sanctions against Chinese and Russian entities believed to be helping to fund North Korea’s nuclear programme.

It is unclear whether there is anything that might persuade North Korea’s leadership to abandon its nuclear ambitions, which it views as the best guarantor of the regime’s survival. It is clear in its own mind what the ‘lessons’ of Iraq and Libya were. Kim Jong un appears politically secure at the head of the regime.

For some, all this means accepting the previously unthinkable: North Korea will be a nuclear weapons state. For them, it is too late to stop this from happening and the only option is to acknowledge reality, freeze the further development of North Korea’s programme, try to stabilise the region on this basis and ultimately incorporate the North into nuclear disarmament efforts in future.

Others passionately disagree with such an analysis, arguing North Korea would use its new status to blackmail the US and the region in pursuit of reunification on its own terms.

In recent weeks, North Korea has threatened to carry out launch ballistic missiles designed to land in the Pacific Ocean near the US Pacific Ocean territory of Guam but has so far held off doing so. There has been some relaxation in tension but the respite may only be temporary.

The consensus is that a North Korean attack into the sea near Guam would not trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, under which members are obliged to come to each other’s defence if attacked. Nor would a North Korean attack on Guam itself. Article 5 applies only to North America, Europe and islands in the North Atlantic which are under the jurisdiction of member states.

 

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