Written by Etienne Bassot,
One of the biggest concerns internationally is that 2018 could see the long-standing North Korean crisis develop into a larger-scale conflict, potentially affecting not only eastern Asia, but also a large variety of players across the globe.
Escalation under Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as President of North Korea in December 2011. Under his rule, the régime has remained closed to the rest of the world while increasing its anti-American rhetoric; threatened Washington and Tokyo (which supports a strong US stance); and generally destabilised the region, thereby affecting EU interests, given the volume of the Union’s trade with China, Japan and South Korea. In March 2013, a month after North Korea had conducted its third nuclear test, Kim announced the adoption of the ‘Byungjin line’: a policy of simultaneous economic and nuclear development. Three nuclear tests followed, with September 2017’s the most powerful thus far: Pyongyang claimed that was a miniaturised hydrogen bomb, capable of being launched through an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Pyongyang has also developed its own ICBM technology: in July and September 2017 it fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile over the north of Japan.
The international community has reacted by adopting UN-backed sanctions against Pyongyang, to push it to return to the negotiating table and to abandon its nuclear programme. The increased frequency of North Korean nuclear and missile tests has stirred growing hostile rhetoric between the regime and the Trump administration: Pyongyang has even threatened to fire missiles at the US military base on Guam in the Pacific. This war of words has side-lined South Korea, which is striving to find the right line in its relations with the North. Although China is South Korea’s main trading partner, it has recently undertaken retaliatory steps against Seoul’s business interests, on account of the ongoing deployment by the USA of a terminal high-altitude area defence (THAAD) system on South Korean territory. Beijing also accounts for 90 % of North Korea’s trade and is deemed to have decisive leverage for the survival of the Pyongyang regime. Together with Moscow, it has prevented the UN Security Council from adopting more severe sanctions against North Korea, but is now under pressure (especially from Washington) to adopt a full embargo on oil exports to the reclusive country. Seen from China’s perspective, the regime’s collapse may imply an allied buffer state on its border (China and North Korea’s Treaty of Mutual Assistance goes back to 1961) being substituted by a unified Korea, allied with the US. China and Russia advocate the ‘dual suspension’ of both North Korean tests and US military exercises in South Korea.
In September 2017, North Korea’s Foreign Minister, Ri Yong-ho, hinted at a possible atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific. A two-month interruption of tests and lowering of the tone followed. Analysts suggested technical problems, or that Pyongyang may have refrained from provocations while waiting for the outcome of US President Donald Trump’s 11-day visit to five Asian countries in November 2017. Following that visit, the US re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, in a mostly symbolic move. It also imposed secondary sanctions on Chinese firms trading with Pyongyang. This drew opposition from Beijing, whose relations with Seoul have been improving, while those with North Korea have chilled; this became evident from the November visit to Pyongyang by President Xi Jinping’s special envoy, who did not meet Kim, and from China’s recent enforcement of the UN sanctions against North Korea. Meanwhile, the US administration has claimed that the sanctions are having an impact on the North Korean economy. Others had argued that North Korea was failing to make advances in its ICBM technology, but the regime’s response arrived on 28 November 2017, when Pyongyang fired its most powerful missile, a Hwasong-15, over the Sea of Japan, and Kim declared the goal of becoming a nuclear state achieved. Following the US-South Korean decision to delay annual joint military drills until after the winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in PyeongChang (South Korea), high-level talks are to be held to discuss North Korean participation in the Games.
Despite international sanctions and isolation, Kim is unlikely to put his nuclear programme up for negotiation. His goal is to be recognised as a de facto nuclear power similar to India, Israel and Pakistan, all outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Should Kim attain his goal, it might pave the way to a moratorium on nuclear bomb and missile tests by Pyongyang. On the other hand, it could push other countries in the region to adopt the nuclear option. Meanwhile, North Korea’s ultimate goal remains a peace treaty with the USA, which would replace the armistice agreed at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. Until then, the regime can play the card of unity against the external enemy, for which it draws strength, among other things, from the US President’s statements. At times, Donald Trump has indeed hinted at the possibility of a pre-emptive strike, a scenario with unpredictable consequences. Whatever its scale, it could provoke retaliation against South Korea, thereby endangering the lives of millions of Seoul’s inhabitants, given the proximity of the city to the border, and triggering an influx of refugees on China’s borders. The international community has not, on the other hand, invested in North Korea’s internal destabilisation, for instance, through disseminating outside information to pave the way for a leadership change. North Korean defectors, including high-profile ones, have nevertheless underlined the potential of this option, given also that a growing number of citizens turn a deaf ear to propaganda and that the elite is increasingly opposed to Kim’s rule.
Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2018‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.