Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 29 November 2017
Action behind the scenes on North Korea
The North Korean situation has recently been relatively quiet but it might be the calm before a storm, according to Dr Alan Dupont, CEO of the Cognoscenti Group, a political and strategic risk consultancy, and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.
“There has actually been a lot of movement behind the scenes, on all sides,” he says. “The Chinese recently sent a Special Envoy to North Korea, which is a significant move given that China does not currently have a close relationship with North Korea. There has been no word on the Special Envoy’s brief, but I would think it would be, first, to say some nice things about the enduring friendship between the two countries, and, second, to point out quietly and firmly that the current situation cannot be allowed to go on.”
Dupont notes that the North Koreans have been developing a nuclear second-strike capacity, with the recent launch of one advanced submarine which is capable of launching nuclear missiles, and another one being built. North Korea already has a number of submarines but they are old and easy to track, so the new boats represent a major improvement in launch capacity.
On the US side, the White House recently requested a major funding package from Congress. It is for the deployment of an additional fifty Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors capable of shooting down North Korean ballistic missiles. Some of the THAAD systems would go to South Korea and Japan, and others would be positioned to protect US territory.
“Trump’s strategy is multi-faceted,” says Dupont. “Many people look only at the tweets and the heated hyperbole but when you look at it his approach is straight out of the crisis management playbook. He is not telegraphing his moves, he is keeping his options open, he is mobilising allies, and he is decoupling North Korea from its key supporter, China. In fact, his confrontational rhetoric might be part of his strategy. His threat to destroy the whole country is, really, the sort of language that Pyongyang understands, because it is what it uses itself.”
A critical point is that no other strategy has worked in dealing with North Korea. It is sometimes forgotten that there has already been an attempt at diplomatic engagement with North Korea: the Agreed Framework deal set up when Bill Clinton was President. It quickly became clear that North Korea had no intention of abiding by its commitments to freeze weapons development, no matter what benefits it was given.
The Obama policy known as Strategic Patience was also unsuccessful.
“Looking back, it seems pretty clear that the Obama administration did not know what to do, so they did nothing and called it a policy,” says Dupont. “Connected to this was the persistent under-estimation by security agencies in the West of the abilities of the North Koreans to develop nuclear devices and deployment systems. There has long been a feeling that there was always more time to come up with a policy. Well, now we are out of time, and the crunch point is very close. Trump, at least, is giving this situation the priority it deserves.”
Dupont believes that the Trump policy of raising the cost to Kim Jong-un of his nuclear weapons program is reaching the end of its usefulness. Even at a reduced rate of development, it is likely that North Korea will be able to develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs in 18 months, if not sooner. “It means that there is a window of opportunity to push North Korea to the negotiating table,” Dupont says. “The critical player is China. It might be willing to turn off the heavy oil pipeline that is crucial to North Korea’s economy, in addition to existing sanctions. But some careful calibration would be needed. China does not want to see the regime collapse. It would just want to get them realise they have to make a deal.”
A deal would probably involve a freeze in the development of more nuclear weapons and deployment systems, in return for the lifting of sanctions and some direct economic benefits.
Negotiations would involve not only North Korea and the US but would probably include Japan, South Korea, and China. China would be the player to verify that North Korea was complying.
“It’s a good idea but I would rate the chance of successful negotiations at around twenty per cent, no higher than twenty five,” says Dupont. “There are plenty of much darker options, such as North Korea exploding a H-bomb in the Pacific. That would be very hard for the US, and indeed everyone, to ignore. It might be a trigger for a military strike. It is theoretically possible for the US to take out the bulk of North Korea’s nuclear capacity, and for anti-missile systems to shoot down any that get off. But there is a big gap between theory and practice, and then you have to think about destroying much of North Korea’s conventional forces as well. Possible, but that is as much as you can say. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t come up.”