THE current US-North Korea stand-off that can be attributed to a series of North Korea’s nuclear tests has entered a new dangerous phase with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump exchanging personal comments and threats of war. On July 4th, that happens to be the Independence Day of the United States, North Korea test-fired its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), reportedly powerful enough to reach to the US mainland. Another missile was tested on September 3, triggering a harsh response from Defense Secretary, James Mattis about the security of US and its allies.
The United States perceives the testing of ICBM as a grave security threat to itself and its allies. In the past when debates on Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) were underway and disarmament proponents were arguing to make their case stronger that US did not face any physical threat in the post-Cold War era, then one of the reasons that US quoted to justify its non rectifying the CTBT was threat from rogue states – Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and Cuba. Though there was a phase when relations between US and North Korea under Kim Jong II were normalized and on securing some assurances from Clinton Administration, North Korea agreed to curb the development of nuclear weapons but neither side fulfilled its commitments. At that time, North Korean government also improved its relations with South Korea; a rail service was started between two Koreas first time after Korean War in 1953.
Contrary to Clinton Administration’s reconciliatory tone, the assumption of power by Bush Administration in 2000 changed the perceptions and policies of the United States towards North Korea. It was included in ‘Axis of Evil’ along with Middle Eastern states inviting a comment from Clinton Administration diplomat – that ‘Republicans did not have a policy on North Korea – they had an attitude.’ In response, North Korea resumed its nuclear weapons programme and detonated it first nuclear test after withdrawing from NPT. Bush Administration initially ruled out the option of negotiations but later on initiated the talks on nuclear issue that came to be known as ‘Six Party Talks.’
President Obama later on, offered various inducements while President Trump has become the fourth American President to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue completing the eighth round of UN Security Council sanctions. Trump has been a supporter of imposing stringent sanctions on North Korea, China and Russia have also supported the sanctions but have been concerned about the bellicose statements of both the leaders. In this regard, responding to the recent missile tests, UN Security Council adopted strongest sanctions against North Korea – blocking the sale of coal, iron and other commodities that constitutes third of North Korea’s exports.
To keep the option of talks open, US has been in contact with North Korea. Hours after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson unveiled that US officials were in touch with North Korean counterparts and have two or three channels of communication open, President Trump tweeted that ‘it would be a waste of time to negotiate with ‘little rocket man’ referring to North Korean leader. US State Department has categorically stated that US is not interested in regime change in North Korea or re-unification of Korean Peninsula but will not accept North Korea as a nuclear power and is ready for talks with North Korea regarding its de-nuclearization.
The US policy in conducting de-nuclearization talks with North Korea does not seem a realistic policy as achieving the state of de-nuclearization is not perhaps the feasible option. In this regard, the first thing that should take into account is the political motivation of the state – why states go nuclear; the realist dominated security considerations of states compel them to go nuclear and in this context, the prevailing strategic environment plays the dominant role. The security situation in Korean Peninsula – the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea do not present a peaceful environment. Another relevant aspect is that de-nuclearization of North Korea is difficult to achieve because South Korea enjoys security protection from the United States. In this regard, the case of Brazil and Argentina is of much relevance when both states announced to renounce the manufactures of nuclear weapons. Another issue of concern will be the advance nature of North Korean nuclear and missile programme. While developing the most advance delivery system – Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the reversal of technology is impossible. To achieve a resolution of the issue, both sides United States and North Korea need to exercise restraint, setting preconditions or unrealistic goals is only going to make the task of policy makers more complex.
— The writer is a Researcher at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.