Commentary / World

De-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula

by Hitoki Den

North Korea’s threat to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, and in Northeast Asia at large, reached a new level with the recent assassination in Kuala Lumpur of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. While investigation on the murder case is still ongoing, the Malaysian police have announced that elder Kim was killed by VX nerve agent in a terrorist scheme suspected to have been masterminded by Pyongyang.

While North Korea has denied its involvement and accused Malaysia of fabricating the story, the Malaysian government has recalled its ambassador from Pyongyang, expelled the North Korean ambassador as a “persona non grata” and suspended its visa-free entry program for North Koreans. In a diplomatic tit for tat, each country also banned the other’s resident nationals from leaving. The friendly relations that the two countries used to enjoy as fellow members of the Non-Aligned Movement have deteriorated quickly since Kim’s murder on Feb. 13 to the brink of diplomatic severance.

The use of VX nerve agent in the killing of Kim Jong Nam is a stark reminder that North Korea’s threat to regional peace and security is not just its nuclear weapons but also chemical weapons that Pyongyang can deliver with its ballistic missile technologies. Chemical weapons are often called “the poor man’s atom bomb” because of their relatively low development costs and the devastating effects in terms of casualties. North Korea, not a party to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention that bans production and possession of chemical weapons, is believed to have stockpiles of several thousand tons of chemical weapons, including nerve agents such as VX.

Kim was killed at the bustling Kuala Lumpur International Airport after two women — one from Indonesia and the other from Vietnam, smeared the poison on his face using their hands. While the two women have been detained shortly afterward and charged with murder, the Malaysian police have not been able to question several North Korean men, including diplomats, who they believe have been involved in the murder case. Some of them have reportedly returned to Pyongyang, while others are believed to be hiding inside the North Korean embassy protected by diplomatic immunity.

Amid the world attention focused on the murder case, North Korea test-fired four ballistic missiles on March 6, three of which landed in the waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The test-firing followed the Feb. 12 launching of a new medium-range ballistic missile propelled by a solid-fuel engine that makes a faster and more mobile launching process possible. The February launching was timed to coincide with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Florida, while the most recent one was a clear provocation in response to the annual U.S.-South Korea joint military drill that started on March 1.

In 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 ballistic missile launchings, all in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. In his New Year message, Kim Jong Un was reported to have said that his country was now capable of test-firing its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) anywhere and anytime. With its nuclear missile development program apparently nearly completed, North Korea is feared to possess soon the capabilities of delivering its nuclear, as well as chemical, weapon warheads to not only South Korea and Japan but also the U.S. mainland.

The U.N. Security Council renewed its condemnation of North Korea during its March 8 emergency meeting, calling for a stricter implementation of the sanctions against the rogue state. Regrettably, although they have been strengthened steadily since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, the U.N. sanctions have not produced the desired effects in preventing the regime from pursing its nuclear development program. As a recent U.N. report pointed out, their implementation has been “insufficient and highly inconsistent.”

China, North Korea’s traditional ally, has been less enthusiastic about the strict implementation of the sanctions regime out of deference to its strategic concern. While Beijing supports the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and condemns Kim’s North Korea for having failed to abide by the U.N. resolutions, China cannot afford to see North Korea collapse under the sanctions regime, a situation that would shift the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula strongly in favor of the United States. North Korea, cognizant of Beijing’s dilemma, continues its nuclear missile brinkmanship, turning deaf ears to China’s calls to return to the six-party talks — a mechanism of dialogue among North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., from which it withdrew in 2009.

In the absence of a credible dialogue process and with the U.N. sanctions regime remaining less effective than hoped, the U.S. government said recently that “all options are on the table” to deal with North Korea, indicating that a regime change and use of force could be considered, if necessary, to remove the threat to its national security. Following the North Korea’s latest missile launching, Washington had advanced its deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) advanced missile defense system in South Korea.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has stressed the importance of prevention before conflicts break out since he took office in January, should intervene to help de-escalate the mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula. He can do so by acting either at a request from the Security Council or independently on his own initiative in accordance with the good offices mandate under the U.N. Charter.

As a messenger of peace, Guterres should try to establish a direct link of communication with Kim and deliver him an urgent message that peace and economic development, not costly nuclear weapons development, would best serve his country’s interest and that miscalculation on his part could lead to serious consequences. The clock is ticking and unless every avenue of dialogue is explored, the possibility of a conflict breaking out on the Korean Peninsula could soon become a reality.

A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.

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