News analysis

There's still room for diplomacy, sanctions to avoid US-North Korea showdown

 Despite fears of a showdown between the United States and North Korea, analysts by and large believe that, barring accidents, sabre-rattling will yield to pragmatism.

They note that pre-emptive strikes by the US or North Korea could be catastrophic. Seoul, which has about 10 million residents, could be wiped out in the event of war.

Mr Ash Carter, a former US defence secretary, warned that a pre-emptive strike by the US on North Korea's nuclear weapons facilities could trigger an invasion of South Korea.

"I am confident of the outcome of that war, which would be the defeat of North Korea," Mr Carter told ABC News last Sunday, but added that "even though the outcome is certain, it is a very destructive war".

Korean studies experts maintain that there remains room for a diplomatic way out of a showdown, most likely through the increased use of economic sanctions to put pressure on North Korea.

Sanctions against North Korea have not been fully explored or implemented, according to the United Nations, which noted in a Feb 27 Panel of Experts report that "implementation remains insufficient and highly inconsistent".

US President Donald Trump's bellicose rhetoric and the dispatch of a carrier-based strike group to the Pacific may have the effect of pressuring Beijing to try harder to rein in Pyongyang.

On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Mr Trump that Beijing was willing to work with Washington on the North Korean nuclear issue, Chinese broadcaster CCTV reported.

Professor Inderjeet Parmar of City, University of London, an expert on US foreign policy, told The Straits Times: "There are levers China could use, and there is a growing voice within China which is saying, maybe regime change engineered by us is better than that engineered by the US." 

The worst scenario is if the US faces a binary choice between acquiescence to North Korea's nuclear and missile programme, and the use of military force to stop it, Mr Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington, told The Straits Times.

"I think what the North Koreans have calculated is that the US will acquiesce, but we haven't reached that point," he said. "The Trump administration is trying to use every instrument short of war to prevent that.

"We are still in a phase where the administration is trying to mobilise China to prevent North Korea from going further, and is signalling a willingness to sanction Chinese entities which do business with North Korea."

Sanctions against North Korea have not been fully explored or implemented, according to the United Nations, which noted in a Feb 27 Panel of Experts report that "implementation remains insufficient and highly inconsistent".

Professor Lee Sung Yoon, a Korean studies expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is "not suicidal" and that the chances of war are "quite low".

 "There is a consensus in Washington that tough sanctions have not really been tried, so why not try them? Military strikes will not resolve the issue. We do not even know where his missiles are," he told The Straits Times.

A senior Asian diplomat who asked not to be named told ST that the North Koreans are "coldly rational", and noted that the show of force by the US "is as much directed towards China as North Korea".

But he warned: "If North Korea accidentally hits a US ship, the US will retaliate."

He added: "The important message is that the Chinese and the North Koreans used to think they had the second Barack Obama administration figured out; now, they cannot make that assumption any more."

Mr Snyder conceded that there is a greater risk under the Trump administration of US unilateral action but said that the more Mr Trump learns about this issue, the more he will understand the constraints faced by the US.

He added: "A good example is what happened over the weekend. As the crisis reached a higher pitch, you had requests from Japan for prior information before military action and significant public concern in South Korea. Those are signals that reflect constraints on US unilateral military action."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2017, with the headline 'There's still room for diplomacy, sanctions to avoid war'. Print Edition | Subscribe