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Speaking Of Asia

Crunch times in the Koreas

The United States talks tough on North Korea, but could it do more? And how long more can it wait?

This week's missile test launch from the east coast of North Korea, deemed a failure by monitoring stations in the South and at the US Pacific Command, underscores the deteriorating situation on the Korean peninsula and heightened panic in Pyongyang's ruling elite.

That this year's Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises, as the US-South Korean wargames are known, have caused unprecedented consternation in Pyongyang is no secret. It comes as two US aircraft carrier battle groups are in Asian waters and the deployment of B1-B strategic bombers with munitions perfected for tasks such as taking out nuclear assets, or the regime itself.

The US is also rapidly installing the Thaad missile defence system in South Korea, a development that directly affects the strategic balance in that part of the world and worries not just Mr Kim Jong Un, the North's ruler, but also China, his protector and ally. Russia is uncomfortable as well.

Political statements of the past three months would suggest a moment heading towards a tipping point. The new American President has said North Korea is a "big, big problem and we will deal with that very strongly". Mr Donald Trump also subsequently sallied forth with his famous tweet: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won't happen!"

Just last Friday, before he travelled to Beijing, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pronounced an end to the American policy of strategic restraint and said a "comprehensive range of capabilities" was being developed to tackle the situation caused by North Korea.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

With so much noise, you would have thought that an attack on North Korea's nuclear capabilities, if not an attempt at regime takedown, is imminent. It most likely is not.

Asia and the world, which waited and watched as Syria comfortably breached the "red lines" set by the Obama administration, should be prepared for deja vu in the time of Mr Trump. Indeed, tweeter Tony Posnanski's acid response on the President's Twitter handle to Mr Trump's "it won't happen" remark was probably the right question to ask: "Was this over dinner with Kim Jong Un?"

Without rushing in either direction, the US would be wise to keep its options open. And whatever it decides it must keep South Korea fully in the loop, and have its buy-in.

An opportune time for a Korea policy review is perhaps not now, therefore, but after South Korea's presidential polls.

Badly handled, the result might not be a choreographed Hollywood-style script but more like a Russian novel such as War And Peace, with an untidy ending that does not have all the ends tied up.

That is because the situation does warrant abundant caution. Bringing down the Kim regime, or launching an attack on North Korean nuclear pods, is no easy matter. For one thing, all those nuclear toys that threaten the South and Japan are not in one place but scattered around. Some are surely underground and others perhaps mounted on rail wagons to ensure they are not sitting ducks.

An equal worry is that there is no clear knowledge of the command and control mechanism employed by Mr Kim. Western news reports that the US managed to penetrate the North's computer systems to thwart some missile tests would certainly not have been missed in Pyongyang, which would have taken countermeasures. Even if some of it was classic propaganda, delinking control systems would be a natural reaction.

Who knows to what level the power to launch has been devolved, and in what circumstances buttons will be pressed. Besides, a leader who has apparently assassinated his half-brother in the most public of places, using a nerve gas labelled a weapon of mass destruction, orchestrated by an intelligence service that has the guile to recruit foreign nationals as assassins, cannot be taken lightly. Japanese remember the gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Mounted by the home-grown Aum Shinrikyo movement, it left 12 dead and affected thousands.

CHINA'S GAMBIT

And of course there is also no knowing how China will react. Beijing has always viewed US reluctance to engage Pyongyang as emanating from a strategy of keeping the pot boiling on the Korean peninsula so it can station strategic arms on China's periphery. On Wednesday, Chinese spokesman Hua Chunying stuck fast to Beijing's "suspension for suspension" position - that the US cancel the military exercises and the North suspend testing in tandem.

Beijing's official position is to welcome eventual Korean reunification but it is no secret that while the current generation of South Koreans no longer shares the sentimental attachment to the North of their parents, China cannot chance an unexpected and sudden unification that could potentially see US troops move all the way up to the Yalu River, facing China's underbelly.

For this reason, despite Beijing's evident distaste for Mr Kim - high-level contacts between Pyongyang and Beijing are a third of what they used to be during his father Kim Jong Il's time - they are stuck with each other. Indeed, there is a theory that it deliberately lowered its protection of Mr Kim's half-brother to assuage his fears that China may betray him in order to placate Mr Trump.

It is fashionable in some quarters to portray Mr Kim as an attention-seeking renegade running an isolated nation mired in poverty and staring at possible regime collapse. Recent remarks on North Korea by Ms Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, confirm that Washington thinks Mr Kim is not in control of his mind.

Some of this may well be accurate, who knows. Yet, who can deny that Mr Kim has shown surprising resilience and an ability to play a bad hand of cards rather well, skilfully employing brinkmanship while steadily advancing his nuclear programme. Previous Kims have proved durable and have died in their beds. As for rampant poverty, those who think the North's economy is tottering would find it useful to know that food production in the North last year was significantly higher than in 2015. This is not soup kitchen time, not yet anyway.

This is presumably what Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Foreign Minister Wang Yi educated Mr Tillerson on during his stay in Beijing. Declining to have a posse of accompanying American media, Mr Tillerson has escaped close questioning but there is reason to surmise that he may have struck a deal on Korea with his interlocutors. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ms Hua's remarks on Wednesday reflect evident Chinese satisfaction: "The two sides arrived at a clear consensus on ensuring a sound development of China-US relations at a new starting point in the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation."

What possibly was the "give" on Washington's part? History may offer a clue.

CUBAN CRISIS

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was sparked by the Soviet Union installing missiles in Cuba, in the wake of America stationing Jupiter nuclear-tipped missiles in Italy and Turkey. The American naval blockade of Cuba that ensued was lifted only after both sides backed off - it was originally seen as the Soviets having "blinked" and President John F. Kennedy got much credit for his resoluteness at the time. Only years later was it revealed that Mr Kennedy had also agreed to remove the Jupiters. The Thaad anti-missile system is the probable clue here.

But any such deal could offer only temporary respite.

The North's nuclear weapons programme will not be stopped, even if the US agrees to negotiate. Ambassador Kim In Ryong, North Korea's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, is reported to have said that "if the purpose is making us give up our nuclear programme, North Korea is not interested in any kind of dialogue".

Mr Kim would doubtless have drawn lessons from Mr Trump's attacks on the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran and stated intention to draw away from it. Indeed, he may reckon his security will be diminished, not enhanced, by standing still on his own programme.

Without rushing in either direction, the US would be wise to keep its options open. And whatever it decides it must keep South Korea fully in the loop, and have its buy-in.

An opportune time for a Korea policy review is perhaps not now, therefore, but after South Korea's presidential polls.

Badly handled, the result might not be a choreographed Hollywood-style script but more like a Russian novel such as War And Peace, with an untidy ending that does not have all the ends tied up.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2017, with the headline 'Crunch times in the Koreas'. Print Edition | Subscribe