With a multitude of long-, medium- and short-range ballistic missiles in its arsenal; with miniaturized thermonuclear bomb and inclusion of intercontinental ballistic missile (IBMs) that can hit mainland USA in its deadly weaponry, provocative statements on almost daily basis and intermittent missile tests, North Korea has irrefutably attained the status of the nuclear power that was once feared and resisted fiercely by the US administration through political, diplomatic, economic and strategic means. Now that the worst nightmare of US and the governments of Japan and South Korea has come true, the questions are abounding: what’s the way forward; what type of deterrence would help to prevent North Korea from triggering conventional or non-conventional war with its neighbouring countries – Japan and South Korea; whether a host of economic sanctions would achieve the intended objective of squeezing the Pyongyang’s ability to sustain and expand its nuclear and missile programme or the complete diplomatic and economic isolation and subsequent economic strangulation would raise public grievances to such an extent that people would topple their ruler: Kim Jong-un – just like Gaddafi and other dictators of Middle East were ousted by their frustrated publics. All these strategic calculations, optimistic expectations and assumptions need threadbare discussion to avoid possible nuclear confrontation, split in global consensus against nuclearization of Korean Peninsula and the irrelevance of United Nations, its allied agencies and organizations.
One thing is very much obvious: Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young, mercurial and ambitious leader would never roll back or abandon his nuclear and missile programme. The lessons learnt from Iraq and Libya would definitely influence his decision regarding surrendering or keeping the nuclear assets. Both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi gave in to the international pressure and completely rolled back their nuclear programmes. The outcomes were terrifying: Saddam Hussein was toppled, his country was invaded and subjected to an unending civil war on sectarian lines and he was hanged. But, despite a lapse of 13 years, US-backed Iraqi government is still struggling to establish its writ over the large swathes of the country. The same is the case with Libya, where the country was destabilized with the hollow slogans of democratization initially with public revolt and then with NATO and US air strikes that inflicted untold miseries and tribulations on the Libyans. Later on, Gaddafi was killed and a puppet regime was installed that is still fighting to extinguish the fire of the ensuing civil war. So, the nuclear surrender of both Iraq and Libya is not an encouraging example for Kim regime to follow, and he knows very well that abandoning the nuclear and missile programme would be tantamount to his removal, instability in North Korea and his arrest or assassination.
Until now the series of economic and diplomatic sanctions proposed by the US and moderated by Russia and China have been highly ineffective in achieving the intended aim of crippling the NK’s economy to financially choke off its nuclear and missile programmes. The eighth set of sanctions, backed by all members of the UN Security Council, including China and Russia, was aimed at further straining the NK’s economic resources. The UNSC resolution slapped a ban on NK’s textile export, fixed ceiling on deliveries of refined oil products and capped crude oil shipment at the current level. The previous sets of sanctions are already causing a loss of one billion dollars and if new sanctions are implemented with the crucial support of China, these would cost NK nearly three billion dollars. No doubt these sanctions are taking a heavy toll on the North Korean economy but the efficacy of sanctions in rolling back NK’s nuclear and missile programmes would depend on the cooperation extended by China – more than ninety percent of North Korean trade hinges upon China. In addition to the China factor, the resilience of Pyongyang to absorb the shocks of economic and diplomatic isolation has shown improvement over the years. So, it is likely that expectations associated with oil embargo are overblown and would not necessarily result into collapse of Kim regime or abandonment of the country’s nuclear programme. The satellite images and other intelligence reports reveal that Pyongyang is taking preemptive measures such as strategic storage of oil, and investment in other energy sources other than oil. Even satellite images hint that Kim regime has installed plants that would turn its vast coal reserves into oil through Fischer- Tropsch process.
The idea of any anticipatory action – a preemptive or preventive war – against North Korea to limit or destroy its ability of launching nuclear or missile attacks on Japan, South Korea and US territories in the Pacific is equally unimaginable, self-destructing and lethal for the global peace and security. Despite the fact that NK’s strategic assets are survivable, given the solid fuel batteries for its missiles, the scattered nuclear installations deep inside the countryside and extensive networks of conventional and non-conventional military infrastructure, any such strike would definitely elicit an intense response, both conventional and non-conventional. According to an estimate, the war would cause the death of at least three hundred thousand people within one hour with more than two million causalities, if the war continues one week. In addition to massive toll of human lives, the war would have far-reaching and damaging global economic, political, social, climatic and diplomatic repercussions.
Nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the result of hostile and increasingly antagonistic posture of US and South Korea forces and inclusion of the latter in the nuclear umbrella provided by the former. The history of the countries having nuclear technology is indicative of the fact that whenever a nation gets access to nuclear and missile technology, it becomes almost impossible for it to abandon or roll back its nuclear programme. So, instead of demanding the denuclearization, which Pyongyang deems a direct threat to its survival, the world community must adopt pragmatic approach and endeavours to address all security threats confronting North Korea. Although a nuclear-armed and sanctions-stricken North Korea could pose a threat of proliferation of WMDs and increased skirmishes with South Korea and others, the bolstering of defence capabilities and deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in South Korea would strengthen and reinforce the active and passive deterrence, enough to contain Pyongyang’s aggressive posturing. JCPOA (a.k.a. Iran Nuclear deal) could provide a template in which North Korean demands can be accommodated.
To meet this end, regional and global powers must endeavour to end the isolation of North Korea and through the means of meaningful dialogue and result-oriented diplomacy, they must convince Kim Jong-un to adopt and integrate its economy with international trade regimes to eliminate the sufferings of his people. The unprecedented escalation in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang is worrisome because the leaders of both countries lack experience and compromising spirit that is essential to aptly handle the situation and this potentially-dangerous situation could easily spiral out of control. It is high time for the United Nations to come forward, extend outreach in North Korean society, take requisite measures and prove its relevance by defusing the tensions; otherwise, it would be too late to save the humanity from a nuclear Armageddon.
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