It would take a miscalculation the like of which the world has never seen for the Korean brouhaha to become a shooting war. The US Special Representative at the United Nations told the Security Council earlier in the week that North Korea “is begging for war.” But she also knows that the United States will not oblige President Kim Jong-Un that war. The stakes are just beyond anything anyone could close his eyes and mind and say, ‘let it come down.’
The longer the war of nerves continues, the more the impotence of the United States manifests, and the more dangerous the controversy. It was startling to hear the suggestion that the United States would deploy theatre nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula.
Thirty-five years ago, or thereabouts, the issue of theatre nuclear weapons was decided when some unanimity seemed to emerge that those weapons were even less unusable than regular doomsday nuclear weapons. The initial calculation was that the weapons were smaller and could therefore be used in the battle field to halt, say, a surprise Soviet/Warsaw Pact massive invasion of Europe, especially, if NATO forces were unable to contain or to slow down such onslaught.
On close analysis, however, it was discovered that if the Warsaw Pact forces were halted with theatre nuclear weapons, depending on the extent of damage, the Soviet Union might feel justified to reply with strategic nuclear weapons. Then the Armageddon wars would follow, from which not much is expected to survive. So, it was considered prudent to ban the production of or freeze theatre nuclear weapons, since it could tempt some generals to even begin to contemplate the notion of a limited if not a winnable nuclear war. Now the Cold War ended 30 years ago, the Warsaw Pact is moribund, the East-West tension has ceased or at least ebbed. That theatre weapons could be mentioned demonstrates the extreme frustration of the United States with the North Korean problem, a problem that arose out of its lack of charity, undisguised arrogance if not intransigence.
The words of wisdom on the subject this week came from no less a quarter than from the President of the Russian Federation, Mr. Vladmir Putin. The North Koreans, he said, “don’t mind to eat grass” to preserve what they consider to be their security. In other words, no amount of sanctions will make them let go their nuclear weapons. The Koreans, Putin said, are using the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein who handed over his weapons as an example of what could become their fate. The various assurances by US officials that they have no grand plan for a regime change in Pyongyang seem not to have persuaded the North Koreans.
But a certain consensus seems to be building up in the international community that the only credible solution is diplomacy. The Russians counsel diplomacy, urging the Americans to talk with the North Koreans. South Korean President Moon-jae whose capital would be turned into a battle field in the case of a war was always disposed to talking with the North Koreans though he has to keep the US alliance strong by appearing to speak with one voice with the Americans. The meeting of President Putin and Moon-jae on Wednesday is probably going to explore how to set the diplomatic ball rolling, for although Russia supports every sanction against the North Koreans, it has stated in clear terms that it did not see those sanctions as alternatives to direct diplomacy between North Korea and the United States.
The Chinese President Xi Jin Ping was to have a crucial phone call with US President Donald Trump on Wednesday. The Chinese are probably as frustrated with North Korea as everyone else and might probably acquiesce to further demands to tighten the screws on Pyongyang by cutting off the most critical supply which is fuel.
The North Koreans are said to have a six months supply but if there is no hope of getting fuel from anywhere, they might be ready to listen. The threat by President Trump to cut off doing business with anyone who deals with North Korea is probably impracticable given the volume of trade between the US and China.
But Chinese long-standing relationship with North Korea must be appreciated and it is unlikely the Chinese would abandon their allies completely at a time they seem to be facing their worst isolation in the world. Remember that during the Chinese Revolution, North Koreans fought side-by-side with the Red Army till the communist victory. The Chinese are unlikely to forget those good old days merely to please the United States which refused to recognize the Chinese Communist regime for nearly 30 years.
President Xi would likely have suggested as he has been doing that the US should change gears and try direct negotiation with North Korea, with China and other nations serving as mediators and witnesses. The Japanese, on the other side, were greatly upset when one of the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles overflew their country. That was reckless brinkmanship on the part of the North Koreans.
What if the missile malfunctioned and landed in Japan and hurt someone? Indeed, the very act of flying a missile over Japan is by itself considered an act of war. It has now created a national debate about the Japanese pacifist ideology which has been rather strong since the end of the Second World War. Now there is pressure to change, to be a little more aggressive and proactive in defending their country against an aggressor like North Korea. Along with the fear has come idea of nuclear shelters. Earlier in the week, CNN showed footages of Japanese citizens building those mammoth shelters some of which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The only country that has been less disposed to a diplomatic resolution has been the United States, although its Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson stated weeks ago that the US did not want a regime change and the Secretary of Defence General Mattis affirmed that there was no plan for the annihilation of North Korea.
These reassuring statements had been construed as very good grounds on which a fruitful diplomacy can be built. What is needed apparently is enough pressure from the Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans, Russia and Europe to get the United States to sit down and talk with North Korea and to reach a comprehensive settlement in the Korean Peninsula which has been long overdue since 1950.