19 February 2013
JTW interview with Assoc. Prof. Selçuk Çolakoglu, director of USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies
As you well know, on February 12th North Korea conducted its third nuclear test underground. How do you interpret the current context surrounding this event?
North Korea has been signaling for the last couple of months that it would conduct a nuclear test which would trigger another nuclear crisis in the region. It conducted a long-range ballistic missile test last month. This third nuclear test followed the first two which took place in 2006 and 2009. And for those who follow North Korea’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile development programs closely, this third test in a row was of no surprise at all.
On the other hand, the crisis has aroused great concern in the eyes of Western countries. There are rumors among professional circles questioning if North Korea has gained such capacity to target every inch of American soil. If the Americans end up with deducing such a common result from the recent developments, Washington may take firm steps. China’s stance is what matters at this point. Even though North Korea is currently passing through an economic crisis, it successfully maintained both its nuclear program and its ballistic missile program until today thanks to its reliance on China’s support. Moreover, Pyongyang’s hand was never forced to offer China with noteworthy concessions in return.
Relevant statements on the part of Beijing were remarkable indeed, however the US has adopted a seemingly harsher rhetoric on the issue. That is because the US and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea, consider North Korea probably as the greatest threat to sustainable peace in East Asia. President Obama, on the date when the test took place, made a phone call with the Prime Minister of Japan. Obama’s message was toward taking “necessary precautions” regarding North Korea. Can we talk of as great a threat as the US authorities attribute to the current context?
Especially by the end of 1990s, it was estimated that the long-range missiles owned by North Korean government were able to reach American borderlands through the country’s Pacific margins of Alaska and Hawaii. Furthermore, throughout 2000s, Pyongyang has conducted several other long-range missile tests. It has conducted three additional nuclear tests since 2006. The main point of controversy here for the United States is the question of whether its major cities fall within the range of North Korea’s missiles in the light of latest developments with regard to the latter. It is a source of concern for Washington whether Los Angeles and San Francisco located on the western half, or Chicago and New York located on the eastern half of the country lie within this range. The possibility of even a few of such major cities to be targeted by North Korean missiles in the future is a nightmare scenario from the point of the decision-makers in Washington.
Certain circles in the United States, especially by early 1990s during the term of George H. W. Bush, sparked a debate throughout the country and global platforms-wide as well, on the necessity of striking the nuclear facilities in North Korea. Nevertheless, the tensions were reduced thanks to the visit by former US President Jimmy Carter to North Korea in 1994 during the term of President Bill Clinton.
When the founding father of North Korea, Kim ll-sung died in 1994, the global public was discussing if North Korea was to dissolve or not. But we have witnessed North Korea standing still in time. In the meantime, North Korea carried through its armament program and achieved to sustain its independence from the South while postponing its foreshadowed demise. North Korea managed to come over serious economic bottlenecks and even deeper, consequential humanitarian crises such as famines, floods and so forth. Even though this sort of major crises became usual instances in the country, Pyongyang did not allow these to challenge political stability.
Then, Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim ll-sung, died in December 2011. His son Kim Jong-un succeeded him. During this process, some international sources made the predictions that North Korea could dissolve. However, in addition to the fact that North Korea regime did not collapse, it was soon understood that Pyongyang did not bring any changes to issues involving its traditional stance. We see that the political, military and bureaucratic mechanism of North Korea has been institutionalized and that it is very determined to keep the state stand.
From another perspective, the death of two grand leaders of North Korea did not pose a threat to the existence of North Korea. In other words, North Korea signals to the world that “I am here and I am to go on my mass armament program.” Pyongyang wants to get across to the Western Powers and China the message that “If you do not get to my line, I will continue furthering my development activities regarding nuclear and missiles. Yet, it seems that US became overwhelmed enough to take action, after North Korea intended US in its nuclear tests.
Japan and South Korea, the regional allies of US and the traditional rivals to North Korea, are highly uncomfortable about Pyongyang’s aggressive policies and especially its nuclear program. This is because the missiles and nuclear warhead that North Korea possesses have range capability to strike every part of Japan and South Korea. In this sense, we see that Japan, South Korea and US feature a common stance against North Korea among themselves. In the last phase, the stance of China will, to a great extent, matter a lot in terms of shaping precautions and stances that the other states will take and adopt in the long run.
What kind of sanctions can be adopted against Pyongyang administration? Even though US and Japan averse to a military action as much as they can, what kind of precautions can be taken in the case that the sanctions go ineffective?
US, South Korea and Japan will engage in some diplomatic relations with China, because China is the biggest and even the sole state that enabled North Korea survive with its both economic and political supports during the last two decades. There is also such a circumstance which holds for China that: Chine does feel extremely uneasy about both North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon programs, since it has already its own long-range missiles and nuclear war heads. In this sense, China needs neither missile launchers, nor missiles nor nuclear warheads that North Korea will develop.
On the other hand, China has a more important priority: it is that North Korea continues surviving to serve as a buffer zone state between the Western bloc and itself. That North Korea maintains its existence is a first ranked priority for China. As a matter of fact, if a united Korea is founded under the auspices of South Korea and it continues its military alliance with US, this will cause China to get weak strategically.
Beijing wants North Korea to give up its nuclear program but, it cannot give up from North Korea entirely either. For the reason that North Korea is conscious of China’s this fundamental policy, it develops its strategies by a bit checking edges of Beijing’s policy. In the same way, North Korea also trusts on China regardless of any condition. China has so far reacted strictly to any kind of scenarios regarding military operations or severe sanctions. That’s why, US does not want to make any intervention into North Korea at the expense of China. Operation plans against the North Korean nuclear facilities have been ready in the hands of US since 1990.
US especially has various operation plans and enough capacity to achieve them in cooperation with Japan and South Korea. These three states can easily undertake the international responsibility of such an operation in a joint way. On this issue, the US and its regional allies will exert pressure on China through diplomatic ways. And the message they will get across to China will be that: if North Korea does not get back to negotiation table by putting aside its nuclear program, we will strike it.
In response to this, China will pressure on North Korea to relieve tension, as a last resort. This will get clearer in the coming weeks. It is deduced from the statements made by Washington that US will no more tolerate North Korea to do any more nuclear test.
In the next weeks, heavy sanctions targeting North Korea can come from UN Security Council. Yet, that these sanctions come into being by themselves does not mean anything, since Chine can anytime breach these sanctions by its own initiative. If China can pull back North Korea to the six-party talks, the tension on this issue can fall down. Yet, if North Korea continues escalating the tension, US, Japan and partially will put a military operation into agenda, even if there is no UN Security Council resolution.
If we take a look at the last 20 year-period process, we see that North Korea has followed a consistent policy on the nuclear tests issue.
Pyongyang initially escalates tensions a bit and reinforces its negation position. Then, it gets back to the negotiation table with some concessions it achieves to gain like food aid or oil aids. North Korea, in this sense, is not an irrational actor. Pyongyang has its own plausible maneuvering framework within existing realities. At this point, what to expect should be North Korea’s acceptance to turn to the negotiation table within a few months. Otherwise, we can easily say that US option of military operation will come into agenda.
By Emre Tunc Sakaoglu