The Korean Nuclear Issue and the Security Situation in Northeast Asia

Yu Shaohua
The latest developments of the Korean nuclear issue have once again stirred up the security environment in Northeast Asia, adding some new, stark features to the situation. This is the product of the long evolution of two structural challenges and their negative interplay in recent years. In order to address this regional issue and common challenge, it is important to accommodate the concerns of various parties and adopt innovative thinking.

I. The Northeast Asian situation is heavily affected by the Korean Nuclear issue

Since the outbreak of the first Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s, the evolution of the Korean nuclear issue has given rise to cycles of tension and relaxation on the Korean Peninsula and, to some extent, a roller-coaster ride in the security situation in Northeast Asia. With the developments of the nuclear issue in recent years, particularly the latest nuclear test and satellite launch by the DPRK in early 2016, the regional situation has acquired some new features.

First, the DPRK has a firm resolve and much more sophisticated technologies to advance its nuclear and missile programs. After its third nuclear test, the Six-Party Talks entered a stalemate, but the DPRK and the US maintained intermittent bilateral contacts; the DPRK and the ROK conducted a high-level dialogue following an “ultimatum crisis” as a result of the “landmine incident” in August 2015; the DPRK and China saw signs of warmer relations after the October 2015 visit to the DPRK by Liu Yunshan, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee. Despite these developments, the DPRK once again escalated tension, which indicated its firm resolve to press ahead with the nuclear and missile programs and its desire of returning to dialogue if other parties recognize its status as a nuclear-weapon state. Meanwhile, the DPRK’s nuclear and missile technologies have got even closer to weaponization, as evidenced by its fourth nuclear test, fifth satellite launch as well as the launches of different types and ranges of missiles after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2270. Its first H-bomb test was widely believed to have failed, but the international community generally agreed that the DPRK set high goals for its nuclear capability and made new progress. What attracted special concern of the international media was its first testfire of Musudan missile on 15 April, “Day of the Sun”. It was only a partial success; however, a complete success would mean that the missile could strike US military facilities in Guam. In addition, the Pentagon believes that the DPRK’s sustained missile development, plus its claim of achieving miniaturization of nuclear warheads, will pose a threat to the US mainland. 

Second, the US and the ROK are taking a tougher line against the DPRK. The US-ROK joint military drills have become more frequent, intense and aggressive with live ammunitions. The Operation Foal Eagle live military exercises in March 2016 involved the participation of 300,000 ROK troops and 17,000 US troops, two aircraft carrier groups, amphibian strike groups, over a dozen F-22 stealth fighter jets, as well as special troops and reinforcement troops such as ground artillery and air defense troops which had never set foot on the Korean Peninsula. Such deployment can support an intense modern war, not to mention surgical strikes or “decapitation” operations. The US-ROK strike plan against the DPRK has been continuously updated, and recently their “Capturing Pyongyang” offensive plan has been revealed. The two countries’ additional sanctions on the DPRK following the adoption of UNSCR 2270 demonstrated their commitment to fully block the DPRK’s avenue for economic development and international exchange. Just days after the DPRK’s fifth satellite launch on 7 February 2016, the ROK immediately announced the “full and indefinite” shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Park. This decision concerning the 20-plus-year industrial park which is “the only outcome of DPRK-ROK reconciliation and cooperation” was interpreted as a move to “shatter the foundation of DPRK-ROK cooperation”.

Third, the relevant countries have diverging positions, further complicating the regional situation. China and the US have had different perspectives on the Korean nuclear issue all along, but after the DPRK’s latest nuclear test and satellite launch, the US accused China in an open and serious manner unseen before. President Obama and Secretary Kerry publicly claimed that China’s approach to the DPRK has failed and that China should conduct cooperation with the US at a higher level. China gave an unusually firm and clear response to US criticism, stressing that “the cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue do not rest with China, nor does the solution rest with China”. Meanwhile, despite their close exchanges and deeper cooperation in recent years, China and the ROK have had clearly different positions on the Korean nuclear issue. This turned into open and sharp disagreement as the ROK expressed support for US deployment of the THAAD missile defense system on its soil following the DPRK’s latest nuclear test and satellite launch. All these have once again shaken the already fragile foundation of cooperation between relevant countries, and erected complicated barriers to dialogue and consultation for the sake of denuclearizing the Peninsula.

II. The complicated and sensitive situation in Northeast Asia is the result of multiple challenges

These new features of the security situation in Northeast Asia have arisen from not only the deterioration of the Korean nuclear issue, but also the impact of two structural challenges.

First, escalated DPRK-ROK confrontation has increased the risk of the situation getting out of control. The breakup of the Korean Peninsula was the product of the tug-of-war between major powers in a special historical period. In the 1950s, both sides planned to achieve reunification through force with the backing of major powers, but neither achieved their goal even when major powers were dragged in. Their split and hostility hardened, and the Cold War structure became solidified in Northeast Asia. Both sides came to realize that as major powers wanted to maintain strategic balance based on a split Peninsula, neither the DPRK nor the ROK had the strength to achieve a rapid reunification, nor would they receive support from major powers in so doing. As a result, for a long period during and after the Cold War, both sides maintained fairly stable relations and took steps together for the improvement of relations and reconciliation, evidenced by the Joint Statement of North and South issued on 4 July 1972, the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation Between South and North Korea and the Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula signed in 1992.

But in recent years the dynamics have changed. After the Cold War, as a result of the uneven security structure on the Peninsula and the unbalanced international engagement with the DPRK and the ROK, the gap of strength between the two sides has widened. This has shaken the foundation of “passive peace” on the Peninsula when the two sides had more or less equal strength. Meanwhile, the DPRK wants to ensure security with asymmetric means such as the development of nuclear and missile programs, which has not only challenged the international non-proliferation regime, but also damaged regional peace and stability, hence the DPRK’s unprecedented international isolation. Seeing this and the uncertainties in the DPRK’s domestic political and economic situation, conservatives in the ROK are once again agitating for the forceful and rapid reunification of the Peninsula. Some even suggest the ROK faces a rare opportunity to bring about a sudden change of government in the DPRK. In the meantime, the DPRK has become more worried about its security and political institutions. The North believes that the threat does not only come from the US but increasingly from the reunification offensive of the South. In this sense, although the nuclear issue has been a bone of contention between the DPRK and the ROK, their core concern is how to gain the initiative in the reunification tussle. The DPRK policy of the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments has been preconditioned on the DPRK’s direct or indirect abandoning of nuclear weapons, which would rid the North of its main competitive edge. The DPRK has no intention of abandoning nuclear weapons. It is vying for the status of a legitimate nuclear-weapon state, thus trying to keep its edge in a life-and-death scenario. From this angle, one can easily understand why the DPRK and the ROK have traded unusually sharp accusations, conducted tit-for-tat military provocations, and carried out countermeasures even at their own cost.

Second, heightened tug-of-war between the major powers has worsened tension and frustrated cooperation between the DPRK and the ROK. Major powers have great stakes in Northeast Asia. As mentioned above, the split of the Peninsula resulted from the contest between and spheres of influence of major powers. After the end of the Cold War, should relevant major powers have given up the zero-sum mentality and normalized relations with both the ROK and the DPRK, then the transition toward reunification may have been set in motion. But the US rushed to establish a unipolar structure, which has cast a lingering shadow of the Cold War over relations between major regional players. With increasing worries about losing its dominance in regional affairs as a result of the rapid development of China’s comprehensive strength in recent years, the US has consolidated its alliance system to maintain its supremacy in the security field and its voice in regional affairs. In this context, China-US competition has intensified, and the Korean nuclear issue has turned from a highlight of cooperation to a point of friction. The “strategic patience” shown by the US in the bulk of President Obama’s eight years in office is undoubtedly one of the direct causes of the suspended dialogue. Meanwhile, the US has kept accusing China of making the nuclear situation worse by not putting enough pressure on the DPRK. This has indirectly impeded cooperation between relevant countries of the Six-Party Talks on the Korean nuclear issue. In addition, in order to curb the development of China, the US has pushed for the deployment of THAAD in the ROK with the excuse of responding to the DPRK’s nuclear threat. This has not only worsened China-US antagonism, but also escalated China-ROK disagreements, thus complicating the situation in Northeast Asia.

The China-Japan relationship has not fared better. In light of China’s rapid development and rising influence, Japanese politics is shifting to the right and there is a growing call for becoming a “normal country”. This clearly has to do with Japan’s discomfort as the balance of power tips in China’s favor. To reverse this trend, Japan has, under the excuse of DPRK’s nuclear and missile threats, supported the US “rebalancing” strategy and strengthened military cooperation with the ROK in recent years. Meanwhile, by taking advantage of the strategic needs of the US, Japan has revised the Japan-US defense cooperation guidelines, redefined its security environment, lifted restrictions on the use of force by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), and increased military deployment, including the use of such sophisticated weapon system as high-frequency radar. After the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test, the US has put pressure on China concerning the so-called regional security issues, including the Korean nuclear issue. Japan has also asserted itself as a party to the South China Sea issue in an attempt to wrongfoot China.

Alarmingly, the above-mentioned US-China and Japan-China structural challenges are feeding each other when it comes to the Korean nuclear issue. Amid the further escalation of the nuclear situation, both the DPRK and the ROK intend to enlist the major powers to support their own goals. The ROK hopes that China and the US will work together to pressure the DPRK and back the ROK-led reunification of the Peninsula. The DPRK hopes that China and the US will return to Cold War confrontation, thus creating security space for itself. Even if it could not achieve reunification, it could ensure its own survival and gradual development by taking advantage of the tug-of-war between major powers. At the same time, the major powers want to profit from DPRK-ROK confrontation. The US and Japan have achieved multiple goals under the pretext of the DPRK nuclear threat. They are making use of the anger of the ROK to accomplish what they have been eying all along: deploying THAAD and accelerating the building of the “iron triangle” of US-Japan-ROK military cooperation. Fortunately, China has no intention of returning to Cold War confrontation even as a response to “encirclement”. However, due to US emboldening of the ROK and provocation against the DPRK, the risk of the major powers sucked into DPRK-ROK conflict cannot be ruled out.

III. Updating our thinking and accommodating the concerns of various parties is vital to addressing challenges

Confrontational factors are rising in the security situation in Northeast Asia, and the situation on the Korean Peninsula risks permanent tension. Regional countries should all face up to and undertake the task of upholding peace and stability in the region and properly settling hot-button issues. Conditions are not yet ripe for breaking the deadlock, but there are some positive factors that give people reason to hope.

First, UNSCR 2270 contains not only the toughest ever sanctions against the DPRK’s violation of previous provisions, but also a commitment to settling the Korean nuclear issue through dialogue and consultation and support for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. This suggests that the international community agree on the importance of upholding peace and stability on the Peninsula, and that sanctions are not viewed as the only method and fundamental approach for settling the Korean nuclear issue. UNSCR 2270 must be implemented fully and faithfully.

Second, China’s policy position has become more salient, balanced and proactive. China has made clear that “the cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue do not rest with China, nor does the solution rest with China”. By stating this, China is not trying to shirk responsibility but is merely pointing out the essence of the problem and the way out. This new posture, different from its previous focus on mediation and persuasion, has attracted great attention. While firmly rejecting the DPRK’s further development of nuclear and missile capability and strictly enforcing Resolution 2270, China has repeatedly stressed that the Resolution must be implemented in its entirety, stating that “sanctions are not an end, and dialogue and negotiation are the correct approach for fundamentally addressing the nuclear issue”. To this end, China has called for resolving the concerns of various parties and taking into full account the humanitarian situation and livelihood in the DPRK in the implementation of sanctions. China’s position has undoubtedly helped the international community to stay calm and seek a more balanced solution. Amid great instability on the Peninsula, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Special Representative on the Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei have conducted a new round of shuttle diplomacy and put forward China’s new proposal, i.e. advancing in parallel tracks denuclearization on the Peninsula and the replacement of the armistice agreement with a peace treaty. The signing of a peace treaty has been the goal for the DPRK, while the US and the ROK have urged the DPRK to abandon its nuclear program first. Obviously, China’s proposal is aimed at accommodating the concerns and meeting the long-term interests of various parties. It represents the most likely common ground of the Six Parties. This proposal has yet to win over the other parties of the Six-Party Talks except Russia, but China will continue to explore specific steps with relevant countries. Guided by the spirit of common security, China will play a more proactive role in working for denuclearization and peace and stability on the Peninsula through dialogue and consultation. 

The US and the ROK may also adjust their policies. There are people in both countries questioning their current policy to the DPRK. Meanwhile, the urgency of the situation demands more pragmatism from Washington and Seoul. The change of administration in the US also presents an opportunity for policy change. As a major power with unparalleled influence in the region, the US should accommodate the concerns of other parties instead of seeking absolute security.

Given its insufficient strategic and diplomatic resources as well as the embattled situation, the DPRK has very limited policy options. Perhaps because of this, the DPRK did not make substantive policy adjustment at the recently held seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party. In this context, the international community needs to have a positive reading of what few positive messages Kim Jong-un has sent through his work report and the rational gesture that he intended to display to the world. For example, he put forward the 2016-2020 economic development strategy, reaffirmed the importance of economic development in national objectives, and announced that “the DPRK would only use nuclear weapons when its sovereignty is threatened”. It is true that he adhered to the strategy of not giving up nuclear weapons. But compared with his previous position of “carrying out preemptive nuclear strikes once having discovered the enemy’s offensive attempt,” the new position can be interpreted as a return to some degree of rationality. Generally speaking, the possibility of a rapid and substantial change of heart by Pyongyang is low. But confronted with mounting pressure on its survival and a harsh diplomatic environment, the possibility of the DPRK’s return to rational dialogue cannot be ruled out completely.