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Kim Jong Un weighs dangerous path to nuclear respect for North Korea

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-08-2017 Stuart Biggs

London: Brinkmanship has usually paid dividends for North Korea’s regime —at home and abroad.

Crises triggered by it blasting off a new weapon or crossing a nuclear research threshold would end with western powers and concerned neighbours doling out aid and security guarantees. Now that Pyongyang is believed to have the missiles, and perhaps the warheads, to land an atomic bomb on US soil, the price it hopes to extract has soared. Beyond its fiery rhetoric to bomb the waters off Guam, analysts say, is the desire to be at least grudgingly accepted as a nuclear state, much like Pakistan — the source of some of North Korea’s early nuclear technology — was decades ago.

And something else has changed. In the past, most observers identified the unpredictability of North Korea’s ruling dynasty as posing the only risk of rapid escalation. This time, leader Kim Jong Un must decide how best to play his strongest hand while attempting to judge the reaction of an unconventional president in Washington.

“Since neither North Korea nor the US has anything to gain and much to lose in a war, it seems like de-escalation is more likely, but the Trump factor is the unknown,” Antoine Bondaz, a research fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research and author of “North Korea: Inside a Totalitarian State,” said by phone. “Also, the total confusion that is visible within the administration.”

North Korea’s record of escalating — and then lowering tensions — to win diplomatic and financial benefits started in the 1990s when it removed spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor, a possible prelude to producing weapons. Former US President Jimmy Carter brokered a deal freezing the program in exchange for help in building a civilian nuclear-energy replacement.

After the regime’s first nuclear test in 2006, multinational disarmament talks produced another agreement to close atomic facilities in exchange for food and energy assistance. Kim Jong Il — the current leader’s father — later exited talks and restarted the program.

More recently, the pace of its nuclear and missile tests has quickened, convincing observers that it has, or is close to having, the ability to attack the American mainland. The sanctions on North Korean trade and companies unanimously approved by the United Nations Security Council were a diplomatic success for the Trump administration but the breakthrough has been overshadowed by subsequent tirades.

North Korea said it would make the US “pay dearly” for the curbs, prompting Trump to threaten “fire, fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Kim then unveiled plans to fire missiles over Japan into waters off the Pacific island of Guam — home to key US military bases.

North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho this week described the pursuit of nuclear weapons as an “unshakable strategic line of the state.” In a statement at an Asean meeting in Manila, Ri said that while nuclear-weapon states have never come under military attack, several without an atomic capability — including Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — have seen regime change driven by the “interference of the US.”

Kim sees the development of nuclear weapons as a way to avoid being punished and gain the type of recognition enjoyed by India and Pakistan, Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the UK who defected in 2016, said in an interview with Arirang TV this year.

With South Korea and the US grappling with new leadership, Thae said, “it’s the right time, Kim Jong Un believes, to complete this process.”

“Kim’s objective is to have dialogue with the Americans, and for them to accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” said Shi Yuanhua, a professor on Korean studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “I don’t think Kim would take the initiative to launch an attack, because that’s obviously suicidal, and Kim’s judgment is the US wouldn’t dare to attack them either — because otherwise the nearly 30,000 US troops in South Korea will be live hostages.”

Military drills

Some analysts expect further escalation in the coming days as both North and South Korea celebrate the 15 August anniversary of the end of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula, and the latter conducts joint military exercises with the US from 21 August.

North Korea has routinely scaled up its rhetoric ahead of the drills, helping to rally North Koreans behind the regime at home while spurring outside calls for all sides to back down, according to Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul.

As long as the US doesn’t act on its warnings, North Korea probably won’t carry out its Guam threat, he said. Still, even if the current tensions subside, another round may follow later this year as North Korea seeks to perfect its long-range missiles and nuclear technology through more testing, Ahn said. “Kim can just sit back and use the tensions to unite the regime.”

That internal calculation was visible in North Korea’s statement on Guam, said Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a former State Department intelligence official, especially its emphasis on giving “courage to the Korean people.”

“Part of this is a demonstration for internal purposes that even after the United Nations sanctions, that they’re not beaten down, that they’re still capable of exerting their will and that they shouldn’t be discouraged,” he said in a conference call on Thursday.

‘Volatile individual’

Carlin also referred to a clause in North Korea’s recent statements, including one from Kim in July and foreign minister Ri’s this week at Asean, that suggested its nuclear program could be up for negotiation if “US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated,” using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.

The Guam plan carries extreme risks as the margin for error is small and there is the potential for US military retaliation if the missile test goes awry. Forcing the US or Japan to shoot down a missile would also bring the spat into unprecedented territory.

That said, there’s still the chance that North Korea — or the US —misjudges the other’s intentions, according to James Hannah, assistant head of the Asia program at Chatham House in London.

“Kim Jong Un is a volatile individual and there are certainly concerns that Trump is not speaking from a wholly prepared strategic position,” he said by phone on Thursday. “The primary concern is the higher risk of miscalculation and over-reaction.” Bloomberg

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