The Korean Peninsula is again heating up
The Korean peninsula has suddenly attracted global spotlight in the last two weeks with the unabating string of missile testing flights by Pyongyang ahead of the ruling party’s founding day celebrations.
On 4 October, North Korea carried out its longest-range missile test yet, catapulting a projectile soaring over Japan and triggering warning sirens in northern parts of the South Korea.
The last time Pyongyang fired a missile cruising over Japan was in 2017, also about a week before it tested its hydrogen bomb.
Things did not stop here. On 6 October, it further launched two short-range missiles in a show of protest, it claimed, to the just-concluded US and South Korean military drills.
On 9 October, again, two more missiles test flights were launched crossing over Japanese territory. So, an unprecedented series of weapon testing is being conducted by North Korea.
In the last week of September, South Korea and the United States held their first combined naval exercise near the Korean Peninsula in five years, a move that heightened the escalating tensions and the risk for a crisis to flare up on the peninsula.
Now it is being speculated in the regional and international media that North Korea is planning to go ahead with its seventh nuclear test in the coming days.
Two imminent events, it is being guessed, are the main factors behind the recent belligerency of Pyongyang: one, China’s ruling Communist Party prepares for its five-yearly congress, where Xi Jinping will be appointed to an unprecedented third term, and second event is the midterm polls in the United States on November 7.
History tells that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, is quite habitual of exploiting such landmark events to further his agenda.
Ever since the spectacular failure of his talks with former US President Donald Trump over the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in 2019, Kim Jong Un has further intensified the velocity of his country’s nuclear and missiles weapons development.
He has personally supervised launch of hypersonic and intercontinental ballistic missiles. At the same time, he also has enacted a new law that practically allows the North Korean forces to make preemptive strike any country and armed forces if any imminent threat to North Korea leadership or its strategic assets is suspected.
By declaring he will never give up his nukes and enshrining a “first-strike” doctrine into law, Kim Jong Un has certainly added a new escalatory dynamic in the global debate on the nuclear weapons proliferation.
Kim Jon Un is not less than Vladimir Putin when it comes to showing extra bellicosity in the global arena.
His style of diplomacy has fair amount of tinges of Putin’s reckless intimidation. Obviously, by declaring North Korea to be an “irreversible” nuclear power and offering an array of scenarios when it would use its nukes, Kim Jon Un has practically sent shockwaves across the Korean peninsula, and also to all major capitals including Washington and Beijing.
The newly enacted law says North Korea can carry out a preventive nuclear strike “automatically” and “immediately to destroy the hostile forces” when a foreign country poses an imminent threat.
The law also specifically stipulates that North Korea may resort to nuclear weapons “in case of a nuclear or non-nuclear attack by hostile forces on the state leadership and the command organisation of the state’s nuclear forces”.
The reality is that being the absolute totalitarian ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong Un was already in a position to go ahead with his nuclear strike anytime beyond the legal restrictions, but he deliberately enacted this law with a view to indirectly threaten Seoul and Washington.
He simply wants to tell the outside world that nuclear status of his country is now “irreversible” — and thus, non-negotiable.
“There is absolutely no such thing as giving up nuclear weapons first and there is no denuclearisation and no negotiation for it,” Kim said during a speech at North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament on 8 September.
So, against the backdrop of such cantankerous law and a projectile crossing airspace of Japan, all these reports about the possible seventh nuclear test have once again aggravated the fears of a major crisis on the Korean peninsula.
The estimated timing of nuclear tests has also generated many hypothetical discussions. Most probably, North Korea may choose to conduct this test during a narrow window between the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and midterm polls in the US.
Kim Jong Un is not likely to annoy Xi Jinping this time by selecting a date for the nuclear detonation around the National Congress.
He can’t afford Xi’s ire at this time. However, first week of November would be the best suited for Kim Jong Un, who would like to see his old friend Trump’s party to regain the control of the legislature by thrashing the Democrats, to cause embarrassment and political setback to President Joe Biden ahead of the midterm polls.
Already fed up with Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine, Xi Jinping is in no mood to have another headache in the Northeast Asia at this juncture.
Xi may try to dissuade Kim Jong Un from carrying out the reported nuclear test. But a lot depends upon Kim’s “mood”.
Kim also knows that China, even it will initially join the global sanctions against Pyongyang in the aftermath of the nuclear test, would eventually come to his regime’s rescue if things go out of control.
This implicit assurance has emboldened Kim Jong Un to keep on teasing Washing and Seoul from time to time.
Seventh nuclear test will certainly put pressure on President Biden and President Yoon to make some seriously thorny but tricky decisions; either deploy American nuclear arsenal in South Korea, or to move strategic military assets of the US to the region surrounding Korean peninsula — or both.
But none of the scenarios will be acceptable to Beijing, which also has limited options when it comes to tackling the oddity of Kim Jong Un.
—The writer is political analyst, based in Karachi.