Commentary / World

A third nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula

Once again the world wrestles with the conundrum of how to rein in Pyongyang's ambitions

by Yoichi Funabashi

During his visits to Japan and South Korea in March, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the “diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bringing North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed. So we have 20 years of a failed approach.” Tillerson declared that, from now on, “all options are on the table” with regard to North Korea, and refused to rule out the use of military force.

In 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests and 19 missile test launches. It is also quickly developing the technology to create miniaturized nuclear devices and an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. If things go on this way, it is predicted that North Korea will have an arsenal of over 100 nuclear weapons by 2020, and will also have developed an ICBM capable of reaching the West coast of the United States within two to three years.

The first nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula followed the 1994 disclosure of North Korea’s plutonium development, the second crisis ensued once the country’s uranium enrichment program was exposed in 2002, and now the world is witnessing the third crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. This represents the first — and the gravest — diplomatic test of the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump.

During the first crisis, the Clinton administration considered launching an air strike operation on North Korean nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, but ultimately abandoned the plan. In a meeting between former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, the two concluded the Agreed Framework, in which North Korea would freeze its nuclear development in exchange for a supply of light-water reactors from such countries as the U.S., South Korea and Japan. However, North Korea quietly introduced uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan in order to continue another form of nuclear development.

In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. It has conducted a total of five tests to date.

When former U.S. President Bill Clinton was invited to join a private meeting sponsored by an international investment bank several years ago, one of the organizers asked him the question: “Looking back over your presidency, what has been your greatest regret?” Clinton replied that his greatest regret was “not launching a military effort to surgically remove North Korea’s nuclear facilities at that time (in 1994).” I later learned of this exchange from a banker who attended the meeting.

Practically speaking, however, it would have been incredibly difficult to successfully launch a preemptive attack to nullify North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in 1994, and the same holds true today.

While in 1994 it would have sufficed to bomb the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, today North Korea’s nuclear development program is believed dispersed across multiple locations, many in secret sites. Moreover, North Korea has the means to retaliate if it came under attack: It could instantly transform Seoul into a “sea of fire” with its projectile weapons, which would likely include both biological and chemical weapons.

According to Tillerson, “certainly we (the Trump administration) do not want things to get to a military conflict.” That the U.S. is nevertheless suggesting the potential for a military response is likely a calculated attempt to increase pressure on China. It puts China on notice that military measures cannot be ruled out if Beijing maintains its halfhearted approach to sanctions against North Korea.

China is also strongly opposed to Kim Jong Un’s aggressive nuclear and missile programs, and has halted all coal imports from North Korea through the end of the year. However, the impact of China’s action is questionable. The overall success or failure of sanctions will likely be determined by the Trump administration’s decision of whether or not to target Chinese companies and banks doing business with North Korea.

Sanctions alone, however, do not constitute a strategy. What exactly is the purpose of imposing sanctions on North Korea? Are they intended to cause a regime change in North Korea? Or are they designed to drag North Korea back to the bargaining table? It is difficult to champion policies aimed at regime change following the failure of regime change in Iraq. A likely choice might be an operation to remove Kim Jong Un from power — and likely in a stealth operation.

But if that option is to be pursued, the question will emerge who and what regime will replace Kim. If he were still alive, Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s elder half-brother, might have been a viable successor. But Kim Jong Nam’s assassination eliminated this option. China proved unable to protect Kim Jong Nam. The assassination served not only as a measure to prevent attempts to topple Kim Jong Un, but also as a warning to ranking North Korean officials who might possibly think of seeking “sanctuary” in China that they could be dealt with as “enemies within” the North Korean regime.

In the end, we may have to consider dragging North Korea once again back to the bargaining table for talks on denuclearization.

However, it is difficult to imagine that North Korea, now in possession of nuclear weapons, will accept denuclearization. Putting another “freeze” on North Korea’s nuclear program might be the only feasible option, but that would amount to a de facto recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.

There is little chance that North Korea will return to the six-party talks involving the U.S., China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia. This necessitates the launch of a U.S.-South Korea dialogue along with the five-party talks among the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

At present, Russia is at the very top of North Korea’s list of friendly nations. This year, Kim Jong Un sent his first New Year’s greeting to Russia (China was next on the list). This makes it all the more important for Russia to join other concerned nations in beefing up sanctions and stepping up pressure on North Korea.

If Pyongyang still refuses to negotiate, then the increased sanctions must be accompanied by a coordinated policy of “containment” to prevent wild actions by North Korea. In the event of such a development, and if that leads to collapse of the regime, the five-party talks should immediately switch to mechanisms for a crisis response.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5