As menacing rhetoric has overwhelmed international debate over North Korea, dark scenarios cast a shadow over the region – but could also pave the way for peace.
RECENTLY, US President Donald Trump, used his debut speech at the United Nations to threaten North Korea with “total destruction” if it does not abandon its drive toward nuclear weapons. The threats were accompanied by new financial and trade sanctions on North Korea. As a countermeasure, Pyongyang promised the “highest level of hard-line,” which some feared could refer to hydrogen-bomb detonation in the Pacific.
Soon thereafter, Chinese earthquake officials detected a magnitude 3.4 quake near the nuclear test site. In the past, Chinese scientists have warned that North Korea’s nuclear test site is at risk of imploding. Yet, US bombers, escorted by fighter jets, soon flew off the North Korean coast in a show of military force.
For decades, US policies have served to strengthen Pyongyang’s determination to exploit the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenals, as evidenced by its recent intermediate range ballistic missile on September 15.
Ever since the 1953 Armistice Agreement, Washington has seen North Korea as a “rogue state”. It supported “peaceful coexistence” with the Soviet Union, but with North Korea it accepted only a “temporary ceasefire” – which has nurtured fears of imminent intrusion in Pyongyang.
For years, Beijing has encouraged Pyongyang to emulate Chinese lessons in economic reforms. Kim Jong-il listened, but initiated few reforms. Kim Jong-un (2012 to date) is a different story. In a televised 2013 New Year’s address, he advocated “a radical turn in the building of an economic giant on the strength of science and technology by fanning the flames of the industrial revolution in the new century”.
But instead of rapprochement, Washington pushed for a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea. THAAD would kill two birds with one stone: it would subdue Pyongyang and it could contain China.
In a year, all these assumptions have collapsed.
South Korea’s u-turn
As Seoul is trying to cope with North Korea’s nuclear blackmail, it is in the midst a great domestic shift. Last March, Park Geun-hye, the conservative daughter of South Korea’s former strongman Park Chung-hee was impeached for corruption.
During the subsequent half year, President Moon Jae-in has been promoting income-led policies to reduce social inequality, tax hikes for large companies and the wealthy and trying to cool the overheated property market. While public debt has expanded, his approval ratings remain very high at around 80 percent.
In foreign relations, Moon seeks stability with China and the US, even if he and most Koreans have great doubts about Trump. Beijing’s concern is that the real THAAD target is China. Consequently, Moon has sought to slow THAAD’s deployment.
But another challenge hovers over Moon’s balancing act, as evidenced by the debate over the Operation Control agreement (OPCON). The South Korea/US Combined Forces Command (CFC) is commanded by a US general and it has operational control (OPCON) over more than 600,000 active duty military personnel from both countries. Park’s conservatives were able to postpone the repeal of the Operation Control agreement (OPCON), which allows the Pentagon—not Seoul—to control South Korea’s military fate.
President Park had the transfer deferred to 2022. In the event of war, US interests will thus override the interests of South Koreans in their own country.
Washington’s ominous tone, Beijing’s unease
Recently, President Trump and Pyongyang have engaged in the kind of rhetoric that has not been heard since the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s. Since Pyongyang believes that its nuclear arsenal is the best deterrent against US invasion, which Trump’s “fire and fury” threats have reaffirmed, it is now even less likely to retreat from its stance.
The timeline of North Korea’s intensified nuclear and missile tests mimic US efforts to sustain THAAD and joint US-South Korean war games in the region.
While Washington has never had diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, China has been North Korea’s close, though increasingly ambivalent ally. Yet, the conditions that once gave rise to the partnership have progressively diminished. Nevertheless, both Koreas are located in close proximity to the mainland, which remains vital to Beijing.
On September 3, North Korea claimed that it has successfully tested a hydrogen bomb designed to fit into an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Afterwards, US and China recorded a 6.3 magnitude earthquake as a result of the detonation followed by a 4.1 magnitude quake, due to a suspected cave collapse resulting from the explosion.
Chinese scientists warn that North Korea’s nuclear test site is at risk of imploding. A “supervolcano” eruption could kill millions in the proximate area, and potentially endanger hundreds of millions.
Only one viable scenario
There are a few potential scenarios, fewer probable ones—but only one that’s sustainable.
Walk the war talk. A while ago, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis threatened North Korea with an “effective and overwhelming military response”. Trump’s threats about “total destruction” followed the Mattis footprints. And yet, in the Korean Peninsula, potential major hostilities may not necessarily be limited to a conventional conflict.
Hollow rhetoric. If the Trump administration will continue to promise shock and awe but won’t deliver any, it will risk being perceived as a paper tiger, along with the Pentagon’s expensive THAAD system. Unless, the administration chooses to execute Trump’s “total destruction” threat, but that would have even darker consequences across the world.
Broader sanctions. As Washington resorts to sanctions, it is also trying to corner China by extending sanctions to Chinese companies. If those sanctions are further expanded, the White House will risk alienating its most relevant partner in the Korean Peninsula. While China accounts for 90 percent of trade with North Korea, much of the remaining 10 percent can be attributed to India, the Philippines, Taiwan and France. If they are included within the sanctions, the White House will frustrate its allies; if they are not included, those sanctions will be seen as containment against China.
Peace agreement. Despite its aggressiveness, the Trump administration does not see itself as bound by old defense arrangements. In Beijing’s view, a peace agreement would pave way for peace and stability in the region. As long as it remains threatened, Pyongyang will rely on its nuclear strategy. If that threat is defused, nuclear scenarios will be undermined. As the stakes are mounting for regional devastation, so are the chances for a peace agreement. But a peace treaty requires reduced US presence in the region.
Toward bilateral peace in denuclearized Korean Peninsula
In August, former US President Jimmy Carter, who has negotiated with North Korean leaders, said that Pyongyang has sought a “peace treaty to replace the  ceasefire”. North Koreans want peaceful relations but fear a preventive US military strike against their country. In view of US record of regime changes, that’s not a futile concern.
A true peace agreement would have to be a bilateral agreement with two sovereign Koreas. It also requires acceptance of Pyongyang as a nuclear power. But since North Korea accounts for only 0.6 percent of global nuclear forces, that translates to affirming realities (see figure).
The old nuclear regime that prevailed in the Cold War and the post-Cold War era is history. In addition to current nuclear powers—US, Russia, India, Pakistan, China, France, UK, Israel, North Korea— proliferation will increase in the multi-polar era .
In the 21st century, sustained peace is not ensured by restricting nuclear capability to one, two or half a dozen nations, but by collectively monitored certainty that nuclear proliferation will be limited for peaceful purposes only.
This commentary is part of Dr Dan Steinbock’s project “China in the Era of Economic Uncertainty and Geopolitical Risk” as guest fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), a leading global think tank. For more about SIIS, see http://en.siis.org.cn/. For more about Dr Steinbock’s global advisory activities and think-tank affiliations, see https://www.differencegroup.net/.