By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: As Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States draws near northeast Asia is experiencing nuclear jitters. If alignments in that theatre have been exhibiting signs of great fluidity and turbidity, recent developments have aggravated that grim mood, as North Korea’s dark, threatening nuclear shadow lengthens.
Adding to the general sense of foreboding and murkiness is the utter unpredictability of Trump’s foreign and security policy, including that involving China and North Korea.
Nowhere is the complexity and confusion of the northeast Asia situation more apparent than in regard to North Korea’s moves – in conjunction with Trump’s tweets on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons ambitions. It would be fitting at this juncture to recall that last week North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claimed that his nuclear-capable nation was close to test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile, thereby raising the prospect of placing US territory within its range.
What may also be usefully recalled is that, thus far, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, including two in 2016 alone. So too is the fact that, technically speaking, North Korea, South Korea and the United States are mired in a state of war for over five decades.
Apart from setting the cat among the nuclear non-proliferation pigeons, Kim’s bravado provoked the incoming American president to issue the two following tweets: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen” and “China has been taking out massive amounts of money and wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade, but it won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”
As far as the outgoing Obama administration is concerned, it’s position was reflected in State Department spokesman John Kirby’s bland, emollient assurance: “We do not believe that at this point in time he (Kim) has the capability to tip one of these with a nuclear warhead…but we do know that he continues to want to have those capabilities and the programs continue to march in that direction.”
Perhaps more revealing is that, in response to a query whether the current administration would agree to Trump’s claim that Beijing was not assisting in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Kirby flatly declared: “We would not agree to that assessment.” What may be noted that, soon, in Washington representatives of the United States, Japan and South Korea will discuss the implications of Pyongyang’s increasingly aggressive nuclear posture.
Whatever conclusions that conclave will come up with, as far as the US is concerned, they will be of largely academic value, given that they cannot bind the incoming Trump administration, though one presumes they may shape the relevant policies of Tokyo and Seoul.
The core question – posed in a write-up in Beijing’s Global Times newspaper – that arises is this: “Is Trump coercing China with the North Korean nuclear issue?”. While the world will soon know what admixture of elements will constitute the framework or thrust of President Trump’s negotiation position, for the moment, one may mull over some of the salient points raised in the Global Times piece.
High on that shortlist is the contention that Trump has a “twisted view of North Korea’s nuclear issue which holds that China is to blame
for North Korea’s reluctance to give up its nuclear ambitions; as long as Beijing offers no aid to Pyongyang, the latter will abandon its nuclear program sooner or later.”
Another potent point the article makes is this: “China is the mediator in the current deadlock of the North Korean nuclear issue, but the job is increasingly difficult. North Korea and the US and South Korea hope China will stand on their side regardless of its own national interests, while China has the least interest in doing so.”
It also reminds: “China firmly opposes North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. When North Korea violated the resolutions of the UN Security Council, China imposed sanctions. But the sanctions are aimed at curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development capabilities rather than creating a humanitarian crisis – or overthrowing the regime.”
Quite aside from the Global Times’ arguments, it is a fact that Beijing came on board for the latest bunch of UNSC sanctions – the severest in two decades, say experts – as also that it was China that hosted the six party talks in September 2005, a conclave attended by North Korea to discuss its nuclear weapons programme.
Later, when Pyongyang’s call for dialogue with Washington went unheeded and financial sanctions imposed – together with what it saw as a gradual hardening of the South Korean and Japan’s stance – North Korea began to assume that the only way to get the US back into a negotiation mode was to proceed with nuclear testing.
Following his assumption of power in 2011, Kim has continued to press inexorably ahead, quite undeterred by a successive series of sanctions, possibly in the belief that it is the only way to get the United States to hold bilateral talks aimed, among other things, at seeking recognition as a legitimate nuclear weapons power, probably reinforced by the Obama administration’s leadership in securing the Iranian nuclear deal – which, incidentally, has been bitterly criticized by Trump.
Plainly, what is needed is new thinking. Though China will naturally be impacted in the event of a preemptive US-led attack against North Korea, one does not have to be a genius to figure that US’s allies, Japan and South Korea, will possibly be affected far more.
While China and Russia have thus far taken what action they can to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear zeal, there is a limit to what they can do. Besides, Kim Jong Un has proven to be headstrong, unpredictable and determined to make his country safe from what he perceives is an existential threat from the US and her allies.
Dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang should thus be most urgently considered.
Northeast Asia, Trump and nuclear jitters
By MR Josse