The US at the weekend took the rare step of postponing a long-planned test of an intercontinental ballistic missile off the coast of California – not for technical or weather reasons, but to avoid inflaming still further tensions with North Korea. Sadly but perhaps predictably, the move has, if anything, produced a contrary effect.
In the past few days, the Pyongyang authorities have told foreign embassies the safety of their diplomats could not be guaranteed beyond today, and have effectively shut down the Kaesong joint industrial zone that they operate with the South just north of the border, even though Kaesong is one of the regime’s few legitimate sources of desperately needed foreign currency. And yesterday the North went further still, advising foreigners in South Korea to leave the country, or risk being caught up in a “thermonuclear” conflict, an “all-out, merciless, sacred, retaliatory war”.
Such bluster is, of course, standard operating procedure for the North, and a case of sorts can be made to justify its paranoid behaviour. The country does see itself as under permanent threat. It believes the West, above all Washington, does not show it the respect its nuclear capability deserves. These fears are always especially apparent during the joint exercises conducted each spring by South Korea and the latter’s ally and protector, the US.
Given the daily threats and invective from Pyongyang, the Pentagon was right to position extra anti-missile destroyers in the region. But in retrospect it was unwise to send two B2 stealth bombers from Missouri on a round-trip mission over the Korean peninsula, a provocative display of unmatchable military might.
What happens now, nobody knows. There are no signs of troop movements or other dispositions that would suggest an imminent attack, while reports of signs of preparations for a further nuclear test appear to be mistaken. Yet next Monday sees the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the regime hailed by its propaganda machine as “eternal” President. Pyongyang usually does something to mark the occasion. A missile test this year – or something worse?
This is the most serious Korean crisis, and by far the hardest to read, since the US and the North came to the brink of war in 1994 over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. We do not know who is in control: Kim’s young and untested grandson, Kim Jong-un, a clique of generals, or some of his relatives. Meanwhile, South Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye, has been in office just six weeks and vows a no-nonsense policy towards the North. China, the latter’s traditional patron, is not only losing patience with its protégé; more importantly, it is losing influence over Pyongyang as well. In such circumstances, even a tiny miscalculation could prove disastrous.
The best explanation of the North’s brinkmanship is its craving to be taken seriously, fuelled by an anger that actions that once earned concessions from the West no longer do so. Far from prodding the US and its allies back into long-suspended talks on its nuclear programme, the North’s recent nuclear test instead drew tougher UN sanctions – which China did nothing to stop – and B2 bomber demonstrations.
To us, the North seems utterly irrational. But one basic human rule applies: the need not to lose face. Having ranted and blustered so long and so loud, Pyongyang surely must do something to back up those threats. Sooner or later, there must be re-engagement with North Korea. The immediate priority, however, must be to defuse the crisis before it spirals beyond control. A military showdown would be calamitous.