Sanctions or threat of military strike – the latter seems more likely.
As North and South Korea prepare for next month’s Winter Games, the prompt for the unexpected rapprochement remains a subject of debate. Some have pointed to the intensification of sanctions against Pyongyang as being a key factor, but there is much to suggest that the main driver was the increasing threat of US military intervention.
The prospect of conflict between the US and North Korea appeared to edge closer late last year when reports emerged that Washington was considering giving its long-time adversary a “bloody nose”, in the form of a surgical strike. It would likely come in response to a missile or nuclear test, but be limited in scope so as not to provoke massive retaliation.
That the war of words between the Trump administration and North Korean President Kim Jong-un had entered a dangerous new phase, with rhetoric backed by an explicit threat, would not have been lost on Kim and his advisers. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea would have also been acutely aware of the risk this posed to his country.
Even a limited US strike would risk heavy retaliatory action, possibly an artillery barrage of Seoul, which might escalate into a nuclear confrontation, devastating the Korean peninsula and much beyond. With tensions ratcheting up, it looks as though Kim blinked first. In his New Year’s address there were boasts of a “nuclear button” being near at hand, but the posturing seemed more like face-saving as he sought to de-escalate tensions by holding out an olive branch to the South. A strong advocate of rapprochement with the hermit kingdom, Moon eagerly accepted Kim’s proposal that North Korea participate in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang and work towards improving ties with the South.
Though increasingly onerous, international sanctions are less of a threat to Kim’s regime than American military intervention. He might hope that he can negotiate an easing of measures through his pursuit of dialogue with Seoul, but he will be aware that for now the Americans will not countenance any relaxation until he ends his ballistic missile tests and commits to decommissioning his nuclear arsenal.
And that is something Kim, who regards his nuclear capability as a guarantee of his regime’s – and his own – survival, is unlikely to do. Iran agreed to limit its atomic weapons programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions because it has some regard for the privations endured by its citizens and – or – feared further suffering could spark an uprising.
Kim has few such qualms. He has shown scant regard for North Korean hardship under sanctions, which, according to Alaco’s Sanctions Guide, have been tightened every quarter for the past couple of years, unlike other sanctions regimes around the world. Those who question or criticise the Pyongyang leadership are dealt with harshly, joining the tens of thousands languishing in brutal prison and re-education camps.
The latest UN measures against North Korea are the toughest yet; a response to a recent intercontinental ballistic missile test that Pyongyang says put continental America within range. It described the new resolution as tantamount to a complete blockade, with curbs on North Koreans working abroad and cuts to vital fuel supplies likely to cause serious economic harm – though big questions remain over China’s and Russia’s willingness to enforce the measures.
Indeed, in late December, it was reported that US satellites had spotted Chinese tankers transferring oil to North Korean ships 30 times in three months, in violation of the UN embargo. Beijing’s frustrations with Kim are clear, yet it has been reluctant to contribute to economic instability, concerned it could spill across its border
Kim likened the latest UN resolution to an “act of war” and threatened retaliation, prompting a new round of US, North Korean sabre-rattling. Just before the new sanctions were passed, reports began to emerge that Washington was considering plans for a limited military strike against North Korea, possibly similar in scale to America’s missile attack on a Syrian airbase early last year, which came in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The “bloody nose strategy”, as it has been dubbed, has reportedly been advocated by Trump’s National Security adviser H.R. McMaster, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis said to be opposed to the move.
The South Koreans have since said that Trump has both denied reports that a limited strike was being considered and insisted that there would be no such action while North-South talks, the first for over two years, are ongoing. Given that North Korean retaliation would inevitably ensue in the event of a US attack, some have suggested that the reported threat of one was merely a bluff aimed at pressuring the North Koreans into dialogue.
Tellingly, Trump’s war-like rhetoric changed abruptly when news of possible North-South talks was announced – the US president issuing positive remarks about their significance and postponing joint military exercises with South Korea. Nonetheless, the administration is believed to be deeply sceptical about Kim’s motives, insisting that America would only get involved in the discussions if they were geared to the denuclearization of North Korea.
That, for now, is not on the cards but the easing of tensions between Washington and Pyongyang along with improved relations between the Koreas have raised hopes of a more measured approach to resolving the conflict. While the UN’s tough new measures are unlikely to have been the main driver of the recent de-escalation, now that the North is talking, the US should suspend talk of military intervention and consider focusing on sanctions deals, such as the nuclear deal with Iran, as a means of drawing concessions from Pyongyang, however small.
Yigal Chazan is an Associate at Alaco, a London-based business intelligence consultancy.