East Asia: Spectre of a Nuclear Conflagration

Indications are that Kim Jong Un is on the verge of breaking off all negotiations on denuclearisation and is likely to stage a significant event to mark this break just before the new year. Does this portend more alarm for East Asia?


Korea was annexed by Imperial Japan in 1910, after years of war, intimidation and political machination. This painful occupation at the end of World War II after the surrender of Japan in 1945. The victorious allies divided the Korean peninsula the 38th parallel into a Southern Occupation Zone (US) and a Northern Occupation Zone (USSR). In the heady days soon after liberation, there was optimism and hopes for reunification, but the opposing political ideologies, the USA and the USSR drove both sides into forming independent nations in 1948- Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South and Democratic People's Republic (DPRK) in the North.

Peace was not to last long for the long-suffering people of Koreas. Spurred by its mentors, in June 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. US, which assumed for itself the role of guardian of democracy in Asia, led a coalition of 16 countries under the UN flag to defend the South. As UN forces sped northwards and approached the Yalu River, the northern boundary with Communist China, thousands of Chinese 'volunteers' crossed the Yalu and streamed southwards, pushing back the UN forces all the way to the 38thparallel and beyond, threatening to unite the peninsula by the force of arms.

However, as US expanded its combat role and in a series of operational level manoeuvres, outflanked the communist forces. With both sides locked in a bloody stalemate for the final two years of the conflict, an armistice was concluded on July 27, 1953. Hypothetically, the war between North and South has never officially ended, and there has been uneasy peace marked with an almost perpetual display of animosity. Separated by a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), while repeatedly affirming their desire to unite, they have maintained a confrontational outlook towards each other. More than 28000 US military personnel are based in South Korea as a deterrent since 1954.  

North Korea, under successive generations of Kim Il Sung family, is an authoritarian state with little contact with the rest of the world. Cut off from global markets, North Korea has been able to eke out a living supported by China and to some extent, USSR/ Russia. It has made remarkable progress in missile and nuclear technology and is a known proliferator of both.

US fears that nuclear weapons in the hands of a 'madman' is a recipe for disaster for the entire world and in 1994, it was able to convince North Korea to a roadmap for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Several rounds of Six-Party talks were then held till 2009, but N Korea continued to carry out missile tests and a large nuclear test in 2017.

On June 12, 2018, President Trump became the first sitting US president to meet with the leader of the DPRK in a summit hosted in Singapore. The two leaders signed a joint statement that agreed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, security guarantees for the DPRK, working toward a peace regime, and the recovery and the immediate repatriation of US POW / MIA remains.

On November 20, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said that only "when the US abolishes all hostile policies toward North Korea" could the nuclear issue be discussed again.


Trump and Kim held a second summit in Hanoi in February this year where Trump refused to lift sanctions before full denuclearisation of North. Since then the talks have been deadlocked.

South Korea, on its part, has been hanging the carrot of economic investments in front of North Korea. However, recently Kim has come down heavily on the South Korean financed Mt Kumgang Tourist Region, which was operated in co-operation with South Korea's Hyundai Asan conglomerate. This has put another nail in the coffin of traditional forms of North-South economic co-operation. It also illustrated North Korea's growing confidence that it can promote economic growth without direct involvement from South Korea, through systemic economic change and self-sufficiency. 

But Kim is smart enough not to shut the doors completely on South Korean investments-it maintains that with an improved diplomatic situation in its favour, loans and investments will be welcomed, albeit without permitting S Koreans ownership of assets in North. The exclusion of South Korean partners from working directly on developing tourist sites would leave China as the sole economic powerhouse on the peninsula, both now and for the foreseeable future.

China's relations with N Korea had suffered a setback as the prospect of confrontation with the US loomed large. This prompted China to withdraw its unconditional support to Kim. War in the Korean Peninsula was not entirely in Chinese interests, and Beijing responded with stark warnings and support for tougher UN Security Council sanctions.

As US-North Korea diplomacy accelerated, concern was mounting in Beijing that China was being left out of the game and North Korea was drifting out of its orbit. China moved decisively to reassert itself and repair relations with North Korea through an unprecedented series of summits between President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un and renewed contacts between party and military officials.

As regards Japan, in November, the much-touted diplomatic efforts of Shinzo Abe also collapsed, ending the pretence that Tokyo could make better relations with Kim's regime as part of the Shinzo Abe legacy. Consequently, Japan's security situation deteriorated significantly due to a breakdown of diplomacy with North Korea.

Adding to the worry of US and its allies is the continued worsening of Japan-South Korean relations. Both sides are involved in contentious export control talks which appear to head nowhere, and the economic rivalries are impacting security pacts also. The most serious is the collapse of the bilateral military information-sharing agreement that took years to realize. However, any hope for the revival of Japan-ROK military co-operation is tenuous at best, due to the substantial build-up of resentment on both sides. 

Japanese defence planners are concerned that Trump's indifference has allowed North Korean missile engineers to make short-range advances that can be applied to their medium-range inventory. More and better (solid fuel) nuclear-tipped North Korean missiles aimed at Japan is a national security nightmare for the Abe administration, especially if long-range missile tests resume amidst some perceived weakening of US alliance commitments in the region. 

As regards Russia, it has historically been close to the North. The Soviet Union was a major ally of North Korea, offering economic co-operation, cultural exchanges and aid. It also provided North Korea with its initial nuclear know-how. But with the collapse of USSR, the relationship had suffered. With weakened ideological ties, there was no reason for providing preferential access. As a trading partner, North Korea was not very attractive to Russia, as it was unable to pay international market prices.

Since 2000, Russia has grown apart from the West and has worked to improve its relations with Kim, based on the classical logic that 'enemy's enemy is a friend," In April, Kim used his personal armoured train to the Vladivostok summit with Putin. North Korea would like to use the Russian card to win concessions from both China and US.


  •  Mistrust leads the US to demand denuclearisation before lifting of sanctions and on the other hand, it compels Kim Jong Un to demand a credible peace before he gives up nuclear weapons. A consensus is possible only if both sides abandon their maximalist positions. 
  •  N Koreans hold some aces as they know that the forthcoming US elections are likely to pressurize Trump to demonstrate favourable outcomes to his supporters. Failure of talks could provide an impetus to Democrats to qualify Trump as being inapt[AS1] at diplomacy. 
  • North Korea is convinced that nuclear weapons are the guarantee of the regime's survival. It will stall, talk, stall but is unlikely give them up. It also looks at America's toppling of regimes in Iraq and Libya with a great deal of fear.
  • All posturing's by Kim Jong Un, including visits to iconic battle sites, points toward taking a to 'bold' decision. The party plenum is likely to announce the discontinuation of nuclear talks and the establishment of North Korea's status as a nuclear power." This is expected to come out by this year-end.
  • In fact, North Korea is probably now a permanent nuclear-armed state, giving Pyongyang useful leverage in its relations with all its neighbours, including China, and in turn restricting Beijing's ability to fully navigate decisions in Pyongyang.

Image Courtesy: psmag.com