Is another Korean War looming on the horizon?

Is it possible to stop the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il?

Questions:

1. Is the nuclear test somehow part of the internal political transition under way in North Korea or was it directed to the US as a leverage for future negotiations? Or something from both?

2. Almost everything was tested – isolation, “friendly” negotiations and even “axis of evil” tough diplomacy. Nothing seems to work. Is there some way how to make North Korea cooperate or in case of Kim one only has to wait and see what happens next?

3. Do you see any chance current situation could escalate to some kind of military conflict and what then?

Answers:

Sheila Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relation

1. As you know, we cannot be sure of domestic developments within NK. But it is clear that a succession process is underway, and the pace of that process has quickened as a result of Kim Jung-il’s failing health. Despite many indications to the contrary, the North Koreans also seem to think that the US and others will accept them as a nuclear power. My sense is that there is less of an attempt here at bargaining – reseting the diplomatic table as the new administration came into Washington, but rather a desire to move beyond the denuclearization negotiations. The statement that the North has given up on the 6-party talks indicates to me that they would like to pursue a bilateral approach, one based on the India example perhaps where the negotiate a normalization agreement with the US that includes a recognition of their right to possess nuclear weapons.

2. The preference in the region remains the multilateral approach of the 6-party talks. This is in part because of the longer term strategic consequences that could result from North Korea’s nuclearization. The interests of the other five parties are complex, and thus this regional approach serves to focus on a common approach that will manage any transitions on the Korean peninsula that might occur. But the potential for a clash of interests should we have instability (regime collapse, for example) or a conflict on the peninsula cannot be underestimated. While we do have to wait and see what the North does next, there is much to be done by the other five parties. The UNSC conversation should produce a tough sanctioning outcome within the week. Expect to see some new ideas – including financial sanctions and perhaps even additional maritime interdiction efforts. The US, Japan and South Korea should step up their defense preparations, including enhancing BMD efforts. And the conversation among the governments in NE Asia – Japan, SK, China and Russia with the US – should also complement the UN conversation. Diplomats and defense planners alike need to be busy.

3. Diplomats and defense planners alike need to be busy. NK is now in a belligerent phase – and the region needs to be prepared for a potential conflict, a conflict that is deliberately initiated by the North or one that results from miscalculation in this heightened tension. I would pay particular attention to the maritime boundaries between North and South Korea. The relations are at a low point, and the North seems intent on punishing the Lee Myun Bank government for its less accommodating policy.

James Auer, Director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies

1. It could be either one. North Korea is very weak economically as you know but uses its nuclear potential very skillfully. Even though North Korea says it wants to reform if the US will guarantee its security, I don’t believe it. How can the US “guarantee” security to North Korea? If North Korea truly reforms, the leadership would probably be killed by North Korean citizens like the former communist leader of Rumania were killed by Rumanians. So I think North Korea will continue to play a “poker game” and try to get Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to give it money and technology. About leadership in North Korea, nobody knows. Any North Korean leader needs the Army’s support so no matter who succeeds Kim Jong Il I believe the Army will remain powerful.

2. The only way to “succeed” is to have South Korea, Japan and the United States consult closely together. First we should be very tough, especially economically like freezing North Korean assets in Macao. IF North Korea starts behaving, then Japan, South Korea and the US should consider some “carrots” but tough sticks should come first.

3. Of course there is “some” chance of military conflict but not so much. If North Korea attacks South Korea or Japan the US will destroy North Korea. Of course many Japanese or South Koreans could be killed so Japan, South Korea and the US are cautious. But unless North Korean leaders are irrational and want to commit suicide (which is possible in the case of North Korea but I don’t believe so) even North Korea will not start military conflict, just threaten to do so, scaring democracies in Japan and South Korea especially.

Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia, The Heritage Foundation

1. Pyongyang’s eagerness to conduct a nuclear test so quickly after its long-range missile launch shows it has abandoned the façade of negotiations and is no longer interested in diplomatic entreaties. The rapid pace of North Korea’s provocations since January indicates that North Korea is intent on achieving a viable nuclear weapon and ICBM delivery capability and recognition as a nuclear weapons state.

The change in North Korean objectives may have been triggered by Kim Jong-il’s health crisis last year. Kim may be driven by a desire to achieve nuclear objectives prior to his death or the formal transfer of power to a successor. Rather than incrementally raising the ante as in the past, Kim Jong-il is now willing to risk a high-stakes poker move by “going all in” to force international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power.

2. Washington should adopt a multi-track approach consisting of both punitive action and dialogue: squeezing North Korea in order to influence their negotiating behavior by enforcing U.N. resolutions and resuming the enforcement of international law while simultaneously offering to hold open the door for negotiations, all the while making clear that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable. The U.S. should also fully fund and proceed with development and deployment of the only really reliable option to defend itself against a nuclear North Korea: ballistic missile defense.

While the U.S. should continue to strive for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear threat, employing a combination of all instruments of national power, the Obama Administration should also accept that there simply may be no set of inducements to ensure North Korean abandonment of its nuclear weapons. There is a growing sense that Pyongyang’s antics and stalling tactics are not merely negotiating ploys, but instead are designed to achieve international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power. North Korean officials have repeatedly indicated that is precisely their intention. The U.S. should initiate contingency plans with South Korea and Japan should the Six-Party Talks no longer seem to be a viable policy option.

3. Despite North Korea’s threats that it will no longer be bound by the armistice, there is no imminent danger of the initiation of major hostilities. There have been no indications of increased North Korean military activity.

That said, there is a great potential for a tactical naval confrontation between North and South Korea over the disputed maritime boundary in the West Sea. A tactical military confrontation runs the danger of escalation to a strategic level from miscalculation by either side.

James Hoare, Former British Chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, former President of British Association of Korean Studies

My third question was answered also by James Hoare. Jim also answered the following one: How would you describe the current situation between the ordinary people and are the aware something is going on or they have with the state propaganda the only source of the information?

There is always the chance – there have been many clashes involving casualties over the years. But up until now, each side has been careful to draw back before things developed too far – Let us hope they continue to do so!

Most North Korean people will only know what their government will tell them. They have been told that it is a great triumph that shows that the DPRK is a powerful state and able to defend itself against its enemies, especially the United States. Some of the elite will know more, and some along the border with China will also have some additional information. But most will be dependent on the state media.

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