Asia: North Korea
UN Security Council votes in favor of fresh sanctions against North Korea following sixth nuclear test; North Korea warns that it won't be stopped; US President Trump threatens to "totally destroy North Korea"
At the start of September 2017, North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test in flagrant defiance of international law. According to Pyongyang, it tested a hydrogen bomb capable of fitting on an intercontinental ballistic missile and reaching the mainland United States. Indeed, North Korea claimed "perfect success" in this hydrogen bomb test endeavor -- the latest in a string of provocative and dangerous nuclear acts starting less than a dozen years earlier.
The detonated bomb caused an artificial earthquake, measuring approximately 6 in magnitude, according to the South Korean military, which cited seismic activity detected at a North Korean nuclear test site. The increased yield in this September 2017 test as compared with a nuclear test a year ago would suggest that this was North Korea's most powerful nuclear experiment to date. To be sure, a thermonuclear device such as a hydrogen bomb would certainly surpass the destructive power of the atomic bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
Across the border in South Korea, all military troops were placed on high alert while a National Security Council meeting was convened. In Japan, the government of that country confirmed that a nuclear test had taken place and that seismic waves had been detected. Given Japan's intimate memory of decimation via nuclear attack, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe characterized North Korea's latest nuclear moves as “absolutely unacceptable.”
Hours after the reports of the nuclear test surfaced internationally, North Korea officially announced not only that it had carried out a nuclear test, but that it had successfully developed a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Moreover, North Korea was telegraphing that its hydrogen bomb would be attached to a missile capable of striking the mainland United States.
United States President Donald Trump reacted to this act of North Korean provocation by making clear that he would not foreclose a retaliatory strike. When he was asked if he was planning to attack North Korea, Trump responded to reporters saying, “We’ll see."
Then, instead of consolidating long standing alliances in east Asia, Trump instead blasted South Korea for a policy of appeasement with the North. Via the social media outlet, Twitter, Trump declared: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”
It should be noted that Trump has also floated the idea of backing out from a free trade deal with South Korea. But at a time when close cooperative ties with allies in the region would be needed, such a move could prove both alienating and detrimental.
As a consequence, Defense Secretary James Mattis was forced to issue reassurances to Seoul and the world that “the commitments among the allies are ironclad.” Standing next to General Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mattis said, “Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response —- a response both effective and overwhelming.” Striking a measured but resolute tone, Mattis added, “We are not looking for the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so.”
For his part, South Korean President Moon Jae-in sidestepped the barb and instead said that his country was focused on achieving the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in coordination with “our allies.”
That goal of peaceful denuclearization was also reiterated by United Nations Security Council veto-wielding members, China and Russia. Indeed, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin recapitulated their shared objective of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, it was unclear if such an objective was even possible, given North Korea's clear and demonstrable desire to establish itself as a nuclear power.
As noted by Stanford professor, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), and former United States Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, "Declaring denuclearization as the goal without an effective strategy for achieving this outcome is not a policy, just a hope. We need a short-term strategy for freezing the North Korean nuclear program now to have any chance of achieving denuclearization in the future." That short-term strategy, according to McFaul, would rely on coercive diplomacy by a unified international community. But such a strategy would require cooperation with friends, allies, and powerful actors, such as China and Russia, which also sit on the United Nations Security Council.
Thus, Trump's suggestion that the United States cut off trade with any country doing business with North Korea was being interpreted by many as counter-productive. First, it would be economically devastating domestically by driving up prices on consumer goods, and second, t would also devastate economies across the world. Third, and more crucially to the point of dealing with the east Asian nuclear crisis, it was unlikely to sway China to shift its tactics in regard to North Korea.
Trade threats aside, Trump also appeared to use a shaming tactic to pressure China to constrain North Korea. He said via Twitter that North Korea had become "a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.” Again, this particular form of pressure was not expected to be persuasive with the Chinese.
In fact, it immediately appeared to have set China into an intransigent stance with the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, chastising Trump for taking a position unfair to Beijing. At a news briefing, geng said, "What is definitely unacceptable to us is that on the one hand we work so hard to peacefully resolve this issue and on the other hand our interests are subject to sanctions and jeopardized. This is unfair."
Meanwhile, there was some closing of the ranks between the United States and South Korea following a call between the two leaders of these countries. Trump agreed "in principle" to dismiss the 1100 pound (500 kilogram) warhead weight limit on South Korea's missiles. As well, Trump offered "conceptual approval" for South Korea to buy billions of dollars worth of weapons from the United States.
The next step in coordinated international action against North Korean nuclear aggression would be at the United Nations Security Council. There was general agreement from allied countries that strong and aggressive sanctions should be slapped on North Korea for its sixth nuclear test. But there were also fresh avenues under consideration, such as the severing of North Korea's foreign currency income.
In the second week of September 2017, something less than a harsh sanctions package emerged from the United Nations Security Council. It was unclear if threats from North Korea may have influenced the decision to "water down" the sanctions measures. As reported by Reuters News, the original proposal to include an oil embargo, halt exports of textiles, and subject North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to financial and travel ban, was diluted somewhat. Of note was the decision to exclude the financial and travel ban on Kim Jong-un and weaken the the oil and gas sanctions.
While this move was disappointing to hardliners, the fact of the matter was that there was no guarantee that further sanctions would function punitively to end the risk to global security posed by a nuclearized North Korea. This was a point emphasized by United Sttes President Donald Trump after the resolution from the United Nations Security Council entered the public sphere. But the truth was that neither international sanctions nor harsh bellicose rhetoric from the leader of the free world have shown any sign of compelling North Korea to denuclearize. Perhaps fueled by that knowledge, Trump, as before, was telegraphing that much more drastic measures were likely needed to bring North Korea to heel,
Worth noting was the fact that other options on the table were equally unpalatable and unlikely to be successful. Regime change or leader decapitation would present risky and unrealistic pathways, likely to provoke North Korea rather than end its aggression.
Meanwhile, the peace camp's notion that a resumption of multilateral talks could result in a breakthrough with North Korea seemed rather delusional. South Korea's new leader, Moon Jae-in, who had been elected partially on the basis of a "pro-dialogue" platform, was again advocating this approach irrespective of the reality that communication or "talks" were a means but not the end to the security crisis facing the world.
At the heart of the matter was the conviction held by North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, that his possession of nuclear weapons serves as a check on threats to his regime. In fact, on the heels of North Korea's sixth nuclear test came the news that Kim Jong-un was planning an ICBM launch. To this end, on Sept. 15, 2017, North Korea launched an ICBM that traveled close to 2,300 miles -- enough distance to strike Guam, although it was not aimed at the United States territory; the missile traversed the skies over over Japan's island of Hokkaido, before falling into the Pacific Ocean.
In reaction, the United Nations Security Council characterized North Korea's missile launch in familiar language as "highly provocative" and "outrageous." United States President Donald Trump went further, as he warned North Korea that a show of force could be in the offing. Trump said: "Our options are not only effective but overwhelming." The president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, issued as similar warning, as he said, "There is a military option." At the same time, the United States's top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, demanded that China and Russia do more to deter North Korea. He said, "China supplies North Korea with most of its oil. Russia is the largest employer of North Korean forced labor. China and Russia must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own."
Not suprisingly, Russia and China were opposed to the United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's call for more "direct actions" against North Korea, and instead, expressed the view that the Trump administration try to defuse rather than amp up the threat of nuclear war.
After a United Nations Security Council meeting, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya made clear that his country would enforce the sanctions imposed on North Korea, but go no further. Nebenzya noted that the United Nations resolution also contained a call for negotiations and urged the United States to honor that aspect of the measure. He said, "We called on our U.S. partners and others to implement political and diplomatic solutions that are provided for in the resolution." Taking a strong stand in the pro-diplomacy camp, the Russian ambassador added, "Without implementing this, we also will consider it as a noncompliance with the resolution."
China's ambassador to the United States struck a similar tone in the aftermath of U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson's provocative suggestion that there be more "direct actions" by Beijing and Moscow against North Korea. Speaking from the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C., Ambassador Cui Tiankai said, "Honestly, I think the United States should be doing...much more than now, so that there's real effective international cooperation on this issue." He added, "They should refrain from issuing more threats. They should do more to find effective ways to resume dialogue and negotiation."
But such advice went unheeded. During his address before the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump mocked his North Korean counterpart, saying of Kim Jong-un, "Rocket man is on a suicide mission." Trump then issued his most belligerent and incendiary threat to North Korea to date as he declared: "If [the United States] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."
The declaration was met with shock from among the international community gathered at the United Nations General Assembly. News media on the ground reported audible gasps and murmurs from other heads of state, and even some audience members covering their faces with the hands in apparent expressions of discomfort. The foreign minister of Sweden's conservative governmemt, Margot Wallstrom, criticized Trump in an interview with BBC News, saying: "It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience." German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reacted by asserting, "There can only be a diplomatic solution" to North Korea. Even members of the media weighed in, with ABC News' chief foreign correspondent, Terry Moran, saying that Trump's threat to destroy North Korea "borders on the threat of committing a war crime." Indeed, the notion of wiping a country of 25 million peopled off the map would certainly qualify as such.
For his part, the head of the United Nations, Secretary General António Guterres disparaged the use of reckless rhetoric, saying, “The use of nuclear weapons should be unthinkable. Even the threat of their use can never be condoned. But today global anxieties about nuclear weapons are at the highest level since the end of the Cold War." He added, “When tensions rise, so does the chance of miscalculation. Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.”
Meanwhile, North Korea made it known to the international comuunity that the actions taken by the United Nations Security Council -- even in its "watered down" form -- would only cause that country to accelerate it nuclear development. A statement by the North Korean foreign ministry, which was disseminated via the country's official news agency KCNA, read as follows: "The increased moves of the US and its vassal forces to impose sanctions and pressure on the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] will only increase our pace towards the ultimate completion of the state nuclear force."
For his part, the North Korean leader was making it clear that his country's nuclear proliferation program was in the best interests of self-preservation. Kim Jomg-un was quoted in unambigious terms as saying, "Our final goal is to establish the equilibrium of real force with the United States and make the U.S. rulers dare not talk about military options."
Clearly, the North Korean regime was functioning in an unchecked manner, in flagrant violation of international law, and with all major global powers seemingly incapable of strategizing cooperatively on an effective solution.
Note: It should be noted that North Korea holds the dubious distinction of being the only country to have performed a nuclear test in the 21st century.
-- September 19, 2017
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief