SEOUL: Last August, after North Korea tested its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile yet, South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned Pyongyang not to cross a “red line”.
The test launch was a step toward North Korea’s goal of possessing a missile it can mount with a nuclear warhead and strike the US.
Moon did not specify what the consequences of crossing this “red line” might be, but his wording implied that North Korea was nearing a threshold, that years of defying the international community may have brought the rogue state to a point of no return.
The warning was surprising coming from Moon, who had entered the presidency on promises to take an engagement-oriented approach to North Korea.
His comments underscored the growing seriousness with which he was compelled to deal with the issue of North Korea’s nuclear programme, long been a headache for policymakers in South Korea and elsewhere but in 2017, acquired a new level of urgency.
As far as we know, North Korea has not yet crossed the red line that Moon was referring to, meaning that the country has not yet demonstrated the ability to reach major American cities with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Nevertheless, in 2017, North Korea’s progress toward this objective has changed the calculus regarding the threat posed by Pyongyang, creating a level of alarm that is unprecedented.
THREAT NOW MORE SERIOUS
North Korea has long been a threat to neighbouring South Korea and Japan. But it is the US that has long been a focal point of North Korean propaganda, and Pyongyang has talked, mostly in abstract terms, about causing destruction to the US.
These threats against the US became more credible in 2017 and it is now a matter of when, not if, North Korea will be capable of carrying out a nuclear attack on US soil. While in San Francisco, Seoul and Tokyo, there is still no need to stockpile supplies and hunker down for war, the situation is more serious than it once was.
North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, and in recent years has stepped up the frequency with which it conducts such tests. With this increased testing, North Korea has demonstrated the growing sophistication of its arsenal.
The reason developing this capability of striking the US has taken so long is that it requires North Korea to master a set of challenging technologies.
To reach the US, the nuclear warhead has to be small and light enough to be mounted on a missile while not altering the missile’s flight path. Also, the missile needs to be able to exit and re-enter earth’s atmosphere, which requires withstanding tremendous levels of heat.
Given how poor North Korea is, how limited by international sanctions it is and how little access its scientists have to outside technology, this has taken longer there than it would in most countries motivated to do so.
But since leader Kim Jong Un took power after his father’s death in late 2011, he has increased the frequency of testing. Without experience to lean on, he has staked his legitimacy on nuclear armament.
Another key part of the Pyongyang regime’s legitimacy is its claim to be the rightful ruler of the Korean race, most of whom live in South Korea. There is growing chatter among Pyongyang watchers and officials in Washington that North Korea will eventually launch efforts to unify the Korean peninsula, forcibly if needed.
I still think this is unlikely, as North Korea is too rational to start a war they know they can’t win, even if they are ideologically committed to taking over South Korea.
2018 A YEAR OF RECKONING
2018 is therefore likely to be a time of reckoning when it comes to North Korea. There is no reason to expect them to stop this nuclear push any time soon.
The next question is how the main players, particularly the US and South Korea will respond.
2017 saw changes of power in both South Korea and the US, with the two countries inaugurated two starkly different leaders.
Moon is a member of South Korea’s leftist camp, which is known for advocating friendly cooperation with North Korea. He has an understated demeanour that contrasts sharply with Trump’s brash, outspoken style.
Some observers expected the two men to clash when it came time to devise North Korea policy. Moon had earlier said that he hopes to hold a summit with North Korea within his first year as president.
Donald Trump’s election as US president, an untested leader on the world stage, also adds a new variable to the question of how to deal with North Korea.
Recent years have seen cycles of provocations by North Korea that lead to spikes in tensions, but ultimately fade from view with no major conflagration. With Trump in office, it is impossible to predict what he might do or tweet, and if that could upset the fragile balance.
South Korea has since pleased its American allies by taking a hardy approach to dealing with Pyongyang. Since Moon Jae-in came into office, Seoul has enacted two sets of unilateral sanctions.
Aside from North Korea calling the latest UN sanctions an act of war, the problem is that there is little sign that even the strongest sanctions will stop North Korea from pursuing its nuclear goals.
Despite being heavily sanctioned already, the country’s weapons programmes keep developing. Given the breakneck speed at which it has accelerated its testing last year, it is not hard to imagine that in as little as a few months, North Korea could demonstrate that it is capable of striking the US with a nuclear weapon.
Given this level of urgency, the situation requires a diplomatic solution. Sanctions and strongly worded messages of condemnation aren’t enough, and the US refusal to negotiate with North Korea absent verifiable steps toward denuclearisation has gone on too long already.
The situation changed somewhat this week, when the South Korean government proposed holding high-levels inter-Korean talks and North Korea ordered a border hotline to be reopened.
It would therefore be wise for US and South Korea to seize this momentum and immediately put together a team of negotiators with experience dealing with North Korea to hold talks.
Even then, a solution to the impasse is far from assured, but now is the time to try something else. Before the “red line” is really crossed.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Exposé.