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North Korea: Unlocking a Deadlock

North Korea

Captain Joyjayanta Saharia (Retd), Indian Navy

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

The Korean peninsula has been an active battleground for many centuries facing domination, occupation and plunder. Starting from the Mongol invasions (1231-70), Korea faced attacks and occupation from the Chinese Ming dynasty (1627), the Manchurians (1636) and several times from the Japanese (1592-98 and lately in the beginning of the 20th century). The Japanese annexed the entire country in 1910, and then went on to the extent of banning the Korean language, including the teaching of Korean history.

The defeat of Japan in 1945 eventually led to the division of Korea along the 38th parallel. The Japanese troops north of the 38th parallel surrendered to the Soviet Union and those in the south surrendered to America. North Korea was thus raised with a Communist regime supported and supervised initially by the Soviets, and later by China. South Korea (known as Republic of Korea, ROK) became an American ally, however, with an authoritarian-dictatorship style of government (in the initial years), which later transformed into a stable democratic nation.

The Soviets pulled their troops from North Korea in 1948 followed by retreat of the American troops from South Korea in 1949. The North Koreans had a dream of unifying the divided peninsula under one Communist regime. Pursuing this, in June 1950, the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel and reached up to the southern-most coast of South Korea. The absence of American troops made this assault almost obstacle free. There was also an assumption of Korea no longer being of importance to the US. This was in the beginning of the Cold War era. The US soon realized that if they do not go for the rescue of their South Korean ally, other allies around the world would lose confidence in them and this might lead to switching sides to the Soviets. The US, in a campaign known as Pusan War, led a United Nations force in September 1950 and pushed the invading North Korean troops back not only across the 38th parallel, but further up to the Yalu River and border of China. China amassed its troops and fierce fighting erupted causing heavy causalities on all the sides. A truce was eventually brokered which restored the 38th parallel as the demarcating line of control between the two Koreas.

Even after this truce, the two Koreas are still at the loggerheads. The de-militarized zone (DMZ), which divides the peninsula roughly by half, runs along the Imjin-gang River  and extends to around 250 km. The North Koreans are reported to have permanently positioned around 10,000 artillery guns in the hills above the DMZ with an unmatched firepower capability and range reaching the greater Seoul region. This is the type of volatility of security situation existing between the two countries for decades.

The balancing dynamics of this fragile yet sustaining stability of the Korean peninsula, which the world often watches nervously, lies in the strategic interests (or rather in limitations) of a few involved countries. The Chinese does not want to be the security guarantor for the North Koreans; neither would the Americans like to confront the North Korea on South Korea’s behalf. However, the growing North Korean nuclear weapon capability has emerged as a serious cause of concern and threat to the US, Japan and South Korea. And this has altered the stability dynamics of the region in the last few decades.

North Korea unilaterally withdrew itself from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as NPT) in January 2003 and is not party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). It is vigorously pursuing its nuclear weapon programme conducting six tests since 2006. The country is also not a signatory or member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and is believed to have sizable stockpile of chemical weapons. Further, North Korea is believed to be in possession of biological weapons as well; ironically the country is a member of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). North Korea’s current nuclear weapon stockpile is estimated to be around 20-30 weapons with sufficient fissile materials for an additional 20-30 nuclear weapons. In July 2017, North Korea successfully test fired its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) followed by a Thermo Nuclear Weapon test in September 2017. What is more alarming now is the strike range of its latest ICBM (Hwasong-15), which is reported to be 13,000 km.

While South Korea (ROK) gradually prospered in a stable democratic platform to emerge as a progressive industrialized nation, North Korea (known formally as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which is apparently a misnomer) led by a dynastic and dictatorial regime became a cash-starved-poverty-stricken nation.

Diplomatic engagements and negotiations with North Korea thus far have not yielded any result or rather any way-ahead. As a result, the approach towards the North Korean issue has evolved as ‘to manage it rather than to solve it’. Sanctions and military intimidations, which continued as stop-gap measures, are also slowly losing its impact and credibility. The stubborn preconditions of the negotiating countries have not allowed the initiation of any talks. North Korea was adamant primarily on security guarantees and relief from sanctions to precede any move towards disarmament, while the US is insistent on disarmament first with closure of North Korea’s main nuclear sites, verified by international inspectors. These remained as the deadlock for the talks. The series of meetings between President Trump and North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un starting from Singapore (June 2018), Hanoi (February 2019) and to the recent one at the Korean DMZ on 30 June 2019 may be viewed as sensible diplomatic moves to build up confidence to break the deadlock for starting meaningful negotiations.

The US is aware of the lead time that will be essential in this courtship. President Trump’s policy for ‘a correct decision rather than a quick decision’ is an appropriate and a well-calculated step towards generating favourable environment for talks. This will at the same time lower the volatility and de-escalate tension in the region for a “stable and lasting peace” as pledged by the two leaders post-Singapore summit.