N-Korea: Teeth Bared

The recent missile crisis as a threat from North Korea, and a pugilistic Trump regime, both benefit from this ongoing drama in the geopolitical arena

By Jitendra Uttam

THE spectre of second Korean War looms large over the tiny peninsula that has been known as ‘the land of the morning calm’. With North Korea’s unpredictable dictatorship under young Kim Jong-un that has blatantly defied a number of UN resolutions aimed at containing its growing nuclear and missile capabilities; and the coming of a new US administration under the leadership of Donald Trump that preaches to use missiles and bombs more frequently than dialogue and diplomacy – a dangerous showdown of enormous proportions seems inevitable. 

This hasty US turn towards use of force as a solution to various international conflict zones from Syria to Afghanistan has ring alarm bells in Beijing, Moscow and of course in Pyongyang. 

Unlike Syria and Afghanistan, however, the geo-politics surrounding North Korea has the potential to drag major powers in the possible conflict. In fact, an emerging strategic arch consists of de facto interest convergence between China-Russia-Pakistan-North Korea, and has the potential to rival US power at least in the Northeast Asia. 

At this juncture when international politics seems moving beyond US-dominated unipolarity, the North Korean crisis has the potential to give formal shape to this informal grouping. 

DANGEROUS GAME

Someone has rightly remarked that ‘North Korea is a curtain behind which a dangerous game of international politics is played’. This loaded and layered statement compels us to look behind the North Korea’s dangerous brinkmanship that has drastically elevated the risk of a major conflict in Northeast Asia. 

The deepening mystery surrounding the reclusive regime of Kim Jong-un has bewildered experts and public alike about the Kim family’s grip on power. In the information age, when people are connected real-time via a host of tools such as mobiles phones, internet, videos etc., North Korea has been able to effectively place a blanket ban on the exit of information. 

Nothing can move beyond the 38th parallel – a heavily militarised border between the two Koreas. Not only movement of people but information in any form is restricted to cross this fortified divide. The only news getting flashed out of North Korea is its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, brutal purge of any dissent, and number of highly disciplined military parades showcasing nation’s destructive power etc.

Building skillfully on its nuisance value, a pariah state North Korea commands more headline news in the New York Times than any other country in the world. 

REAL ANSWERS

What is so mysterious that has rendered North Korea to adopt this defiant and belligerent posture threatening peace and stability of the region? Why major powers such as US, China, Russia and Japan seem to be clueless about the real intent of North Korea?

Whether the real intent of major powers is to simply maintain status quo or to prevent the arrival of nationalist United Korea? Answers to these puzzling questions lie in the deeper understanding of misdeeds committed by the great powers that have been historically involved in the simmering interest contest over the Korean peninsula. 

The real danger is that without the North Korean shield numerous wrong doings imposed on the Korean people by major powers such as brutal colonial exploitation, purge of thousands of innocent left-leaning groups before the Korean War, death of millions of Koreans during 1950-53 inter-Korean War, painful national division and the suffering of divided families – would cry for justice, accountability and truth. 

Millions of deaths and unprecedented national devastation may unmask the unruly behaviour of involved powers.

The existence of North Korea is therefore a crucial shield that diverts the world’s attention away from the misery imposed on the peace-loving people of a small country. World powers, including the US, China, Japan, Russia, as well as North Korean dictatorship itself, clearly benefits from the ongoing game of belligerence. 

Amplifying the war rhetoric particularly helps North Korean regime and provides over-riding logic to the US military to continue its presence in this part of world. With aggressive war mongering, North Korea has increased its bargaining power that can possibly be translated into a substantial financial package along with diplomatic recognition by the United States and its allies. 

On the other hand, the war rhetoric has helped US to upgrade threat levels to South Korea and use it as an excuse to install Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) that may not only checks incoming North Korean missiles but also keeps an eye on China. 

In addition, with the upgraded threat from North, US can collect higher rent for the security cover that it has been providing to its allies such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. 

SAFETY ZONE

Adding fuel to the fire, North Korea’s geo-strategic and geo-political location provides a de facto safety zone behind which it can mount threats and other military provocations. The locational security under the shadow of competing interests of major powers works as a deterrent to any idea of a surgical strike against North Korean military asset. 

MYSTERY AROUND THE RECLUSIVE REGIME OF KIM JONG-UN HAS BAFFLED EXPERTS AND PUBLIC ALIKE ABOUT THE KIM FAMILY’S GRIP ON POWER

Indeed, the US military fears that the political fallout that can galvanise Chinese, Russian response with the clear possibility of a full-scale war. China, Japan, South Korea and Russia do not wish to see such a war at their doorsteps; and also the US does not intend to engage in a conflict zone so close to its emerging adversaries, China and Russia. 

On the other hand, the economics of belligerency works in favour of North Korea. Nuclear and missile tests conducted by North Korea are the cheapest instruments in the hands of the North Korean leader as they help him propel his stature as a world leader competing head-on with American, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders. 

North’s blatant defiance to the United Nations as well as various world leaders also contributes in the consolidation of power under Kim Jong-un domestically. There is documented history showing North Korean involvement in bargaining assistance for economic development, or seeking financial support through these belligerent moves.

Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), Kaesong Industrial Complex, Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, reunion of divided families – are all money spinning programmes that THE North Korean regime has cornered only with hard-bargain. 

INDIA’S PRINCIPLES

Asia’s other giant India, has followed a very principled approach to Korean peninsula. Having dense historical linkages with ancient Korea through matrimonial alliance between a princess from Ayodhya and Korean King, Kim Suro, in 48 AD, and the spread of Buddhism through exchange of visits by Korean and Indian monks, India never sided with idea of dividing a small peninsular country. 

In view of India’s own traumatic experience of a partition, the whole nation felt unhappy about Korea’s division. India vigorously supported Korea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at the UN. 

From the very beginning, India was opposed to the idea of the 38th Parallel. Chairman of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea KPS Menon held identical views with India. 

On 21 January 1948, in a radio broadcast, Menon reiterated, “Our commission does not recognise the 38th parallel.” But India’s unequivocal support to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Korea went against the US-USSR’s interests. 

Following an independent foreign policy, India withheld recognition of both North and South Korea on the ground that the division of the Korean peninsula was artificial. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the Indian parliament that India declined to recognise either government in Korea officially because “we felt that the division between North and South Korea could not last. It was artificial”. 

When in June 1950, hostilities broke out between North and South Korea, India reacted by deploring the crisis. Indian Prime Minister Nehru said in the Parliament: “…whatever the past history might have been, it is perfectly clear that North Korea indulged in a full-scale and well-laid out invasion, and this can only be described as aggression in any sense of the term”.

But considering its own domestic constraints, India opted not to involve itself militarily in the Korean War, rather only agreed to dispatch a medical unit. India was hesitant to accord diplomatic recognition to any of the divided parts thus tried to maintain arm’s length distance from the artificially created identities of North and South Korea. It took a while when India in 1973 established diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea simultaneously.

In recent times, India has developed deeper political, economic and strategic engagement with the South Korea. At the same time, defying UN sanctions, it still maintains bilateral engagement with North Korea, though it’s a very low-key affair. 

India has pursued a stated policy based on non-interference and equidistance with both Koreas. Under this policy, India engages South Korea but cautiously defends its relations with North Korea as well. At this juncture, India is better placed to work as bridge between two Koreas in bringing national reconciliation. 

DIGNIFIED SPACE

However, any fruitful progress in the Korean question requires that major powers agree to accord North Korea a dignified space in the international system.

Learning lessons from North Korea’s earlier bargaining tricks, and non-usefulness of UN sanctions, it is important that the international community exerts considerable pressure to compel North Korea to alter its belligerent posturing as well as impress upon the UN to rethink its policy of sanctions. It may be better to provide breathing space for North Korea so that it can become a normal country and behave normally.

Having persistent policy of equidistance from both Koreas, India can also play a constructive role in the resolution of the Korean question. 

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