China’s foreign minister urged North Korea to halt its nuclear activities and the U.S. to suspend nearby military drills, as a way to quell growing tensions and get Kim Jong Un back to the negotiating table.
“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming towards each other, with neither side willing to give way,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Wednesday in Beijing. “The question is, are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority now is to flash a red light and apply brakes on both trains.”
The United States said on Tuesday that it had begun deploying an advanced and contentious missile defense system in South Korea, prompting China to warn of a new atomic arms race in a region increasingly on edge over North Korea’s drive to build a nuclear arsenal.
The American announcement came a day after the simultaneous launch of four missiles by North Korea into waters off the Japanese coast, which Pyongyang said was a drill for striking American bases in Japan. The feat, footage of which was broadcast on state television, raised concern about the North’s ability to overwhelm the new defense system being deployed.
Hours later, North Korea further unnerved the region by declaring it was blocking all Malaysians from leaving its soil, sharply escalating a dispute over last month’s assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.
The New York Times reported Sunday that President Trump’s national security deputies have discussed both the possibility of pre-emptive strikes that would almost certainly provoke an attack on South Korea and a reintroduction of nuclear weapons to the South. Intelligence officials say North Korea is already able to hit much of South Korea and Japan with a nuclear-tipped missile.
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, warned that Thaad “will bring an arms race in the region,” likening the defensive system to a shield that would prompt the development of new spears. “More missile shields of one side inevitably bring more nuclear missiles of the opposing side that can break through the missile shield,” it said.
But in another article, the news agency rebuked North Korea, saying it must “face the reality that it can neither thwart Washington and Seoul nor consolidate its security in a breeze with its immature nuclear technology.”
Most of the scenarios in the Korean Peninsula range from dangerous to horrific. This process will continue to test the new administration. Given projected timelines in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development, President Trump could face an early decision on whether to shoot down or otherwise disable a North Korean long-range missile, very possibly triggering an even larger military crisis on the peninsula. His administration also has an urgent need to fill out its ranks with senior appointments at the departments of state and defense. The president and cabinet officers can set the policy framework, but policy coordination and implementation requires that the fully functioning machinery of government stand behind the policy.
All policy options on the peninsula are bad. It is nonetheless heartening that the president shows keen awareness of the scale of the challenge and the need to approach North Korea with deliberation and resolve.
A look at the recent North Korea situation and future scenarios – A Testimony by Dr. Victor Cha before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on February 7, 2017. Cha is Senior Advisor, North Korea chair, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Between 1994 and 2008, North Korea conducted 17 missile tests and 1 nuclear test. However, in the past eight years, these numbers have increased to 62 missile tests and 4 nuclear tests, including 20 missile and 2 nuclear in the past year alone.
The leader has stated unequivocally that he runs a nuclear weapons state and that he has no intention of disarming. Indeed, he has enshrined this nuclear weapons status in the constitution, which could be considered normal only by North Korean standards.
… data at CSIS indicate that North Korea will challenge the new administration almost immediately. This would be for the purposes of establishing a position of strength.
There used to be a debate in the expert policy community and within the U.S. government about the purpose of these activities. Some said that the regime, isolated and alone after the end of the Cold War, was building a program for its security, but would be open to negotiating away that program for security guarantees and energy assistance. Indeed, this premise formed the basis of extensive negotiations and significant agreements in 1994 and in 2005 that ultimately failed, but not without demonstrating the U.S. commitment to seek a peaceful resolution to the problem.
I think most in the expert community today would have a different assessment of the North’s intentions. The pace of the testing – that some have characterized in the past as a “provocation disguised as an olive branch” – is designed to traverse critical technical thresholds to achieve a modern nuclear weapons force.1 In the past years already, the North has demonstrated through testing and propaganda statements that it is pursuing the technology for mobile launch capabilities, a solid fuel propellant, a miniaturized nuclear warhead, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and an exoatmospheric launch capacity.
The objective of this weapons drive is clear: To field a modern nuclear force that has the proven ability to threaten first U.S. territories in the Pacific, including Guam and Hawaii; then the achievement of a capability to reach the U.S. homeland starting with the West Coast, and ultimately, the proven capability to hit Washington DC with a nuclear-tipped ICBM.
The strategic purpose of this capability is not to launch an attack on Washington, as this would certainly translate into an abrupt termination of the regime in Pyongyang. Instead, it is to deny the U.S. access to the region in support of its alliance commitments. By holding U.S. cities hostage, the DPRK could work to impede the ability of the U.S. to flow forces and materiel to critical nodes and bases in defense of South Korea or Japan.
Eight years of “strategic patience” – the outgoing administration’s policy of sanctions designed to cause the North Koreans to cry “uncle” and come back to the table – has done little to curb the threat. In the past year, North Korea has crossed technical thresholds that were previously thought to be beyond their reach for years. They may have scores of nuclear weapons by the end of this decade.
And it is entirely plausible that during Trump’s four years in office, North Korea will demonstrate an ability to reach the U.S. West Coast with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, making it the only country outside of China and Russia to have such a capability.
At the same time, North Korea under Kim Jong-un may try to engage the regime with proposals for peace treaty talks or other diplomatic proposals designed to entice the Trump administration into a deal. It is unlikely that Pyongyang will seek to engage the government in South Korea until after the political impeachment crisis subsides, however.
The paths forward are about as clear as a foggy day in London. I [Victor Cha] discern five:
*Positive: A positive path would entail a North Korean decision – whether of aggregation of sanctions – to return to the negotiating table over their nuclear weapons programs. This could be in a bilateral format with the Americans or through a return to the Six-Party talks, the multilateral forum chaired by China.
*Ambiguous: That is, North Korea shows a willingness to return to diplomacy, but without a commitment to denuclearize, instead focusing on negotiating a peace treaty with the U.S. as setting the stage potentially for tension-reduction.
*Negative: Kim Jong-un could accelerate his efforts to grow his nuclear capabilities accompanied by more nuclear detonations, missile tests, fiery threats, and potentially even proliferation horizontally to Iran, Pakistan or other non-state actors.
*Instability: Even though the leader celebrates a five-year anniversary this week, exceeding many people’s expectations of whether he could handle the job, the rate of high-level defections and purges in North Korea is unprecedented, which indicates a significant degree of churn inside the system. This internal instability can manifest itself in external spasms that generate outright conflict in the region.
*Status quo: North Korea in this scenario would not be characterized by an increased tempo of testing, nor an increased interest in diplomacy. Instead, it would work methodically as it has done over the past few years to build programs, remain cool to negotiation, and provoke occasionally but not at a level that would generate U.S. or South Korean reactions.