Asia & Pacific
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How the US Maneuvered Itself Into the North Korean Trap

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Russian geopolitical analyst Gevorg Mirzayan outlines how US policy decisions got it into a crisis with North Korea, and how Washington can get out of it.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump and the leaders of South Korea and Japan agreed to step up pressure against North Korea, possibly via new sanctions. 

Earlier, Russia called on members of the UN Security Council to support a joint Russian-Chinese initiative on deescalating the situation on the Korean Peninsula following Tuesday's North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile test. 

That initiative was a response to a US ultimatum to Pyongyang, which warned of "severe" consequences for the country if it didn't back down from its nuclear and missile programs. US officials confirmed that all options were on the table for dealing with North Korea's "very bad behavior."

Commenting on the latest phase of the long-standing US-North Korean crisis, Gevorg Mirzayan, an associate professor of political science at Russia's Finance University, wrote that the US has effectively "found itself stuck in a diplomatic trap," with no clear prospects on how to get out without damaging its reputation.

The North Korea problem comes down to two factors, according to the journalist.

"The first, of course, relates to Kim Jong-un. He could easily get lost in the pile of real problems facing the world – the Iran issue, Syria, Ukraine, etc. But the 'genius among geniuses in military strategy', as he is called in North Korea, has chosen a different approach. Pyongyang regularly stages loud provocations (along the lines of the 'death sentence' for former South Korean President Park Geun-hye), and conducts missile tests."

© Sputnik/ Iliya Pitalev
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a military parade marking the 105th birthday of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea, in Pyongyang

"The last of these occurred a few days ago, proving a success, and bringing the country closer to the point of no return, which, it's worth recalling, involves the creation of an ICBM capable of flying to California with a compact nuclear charge packed onboard. After that, a 'military solution' could move from the table (on which, according to the Americans, it's always present) into the hands of generals, who will begin its implementation." 

The second destabilizing factor is the US itself, Mirzayan says. "The Americans understand perfectly well that Pyongyang has not crossed any red line. Moreover, they understand that attempts to pressure them via sanctions and the threat of force will not work – or to be more precise, will work only in the opposite direction, since Kim needs to prove to his people that he has never been afraid of the 'damned imperialists'."

Nevertheless, "with a perseverance that would better be applied elsewhere, the US machinery of state picks up on North Korean provocations and turns them into a global PR campaign. US generals threaten the country with war, US secretaries of state plan to impose sanctions, and US presidents say that 'it's impossible to go on like this'."

There are several reasons behind this reaction, according to the observer. This includes the fact that the North Korean problem cannot be solved either militarily, or via sanctions "(or more precisely, there is no solution which involves the preservation of the integrity and security of Seoul, that of other South Korean cities, as well as normal radiation levels in the peninsula and around it). The US cannot admit this, because as a superpower, ignoring North Korean provocations would be seen as a demonstration of American weakness."

Meanwhile, issuing threats against North Korea and the subsequent refusal to act on these threats is also a sign of weakness, but one with one very important benefit, Mirzayan notes.

"The Americans still react to North Korean provocations – not by sanctions or by war, but by strengthening their positions in Japan and South Korea. Every North Korean missile launch is an additional argument for supporters of basing US troops in East Asia, and for strengthening their capabilities."

This includes the deployment of the US's THAAD missile defense system, which the analyst notes is obviously aimed at China, and not at Pyongyang. "Therefore, it turns out that the United States is able to weaken Beijing via its own North Korean client."

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors arrive at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, in this handout picture provided by the United States Forces Korea (USFK) and released by Yonhap on March 7, 2017. Picture taken on March 6, 2017

"In recent weeks and months, taking account of Donald Trump's 'warm' attitudes toward Beijing, the role of the Chinese factor in the US reaction has grown. For example, after North Korea's latest missile launch, US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said that Washington would push forward a new anti-North Korean resolution at the UN which, among other things, would include clauses on punishing countries which trade with Pyongyang."

In other words, Mirzayan noted, the resolution is aimed against China, which is currently supporting Pyongyang. "As a result, Beijing falls into a trap. If it agrees to adopt this resolution and refuses to support North Korea, the regime will collapse – and China will be stuck with all the consequences, including a flood of refugees, the collapse of the million-man North Korean Army, nuclear technology falling into the hands of fanatics and, ultimately, the appearance of American bases on China's borders."

© AFP 2019/ Nicolas ASFOURI
The sun sets over the Friendship bridge on the Yalu River connecting the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in Chinese border city of Dandong on July 5, 2017

On the other hand, "if China rejects the resolution (and this is what will happen, because the above-mentioned consequences is not something it wants to see turn into reality) the Americans will say that Beijing does not want to pressure North Korea, that they do not want to solve the Korean crisis, and that they are really playing the role of devil's advocate. This will have a negative impact on China's reputation. This will be followed by a US 'punishment' for China – new troops in East Asia, new sanctions against Chinese companies, and arms supplies for Taiwan."

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Looking to salvage the situation, China and Russia have developed and presented to the world community an alternative solution – a road map for de-escalation. The first stage includes a so-called 'double freeze' – calling on Pyongyang to declare a moratorium on further weapons testing, and for the US and its allies to refrain from large-scale joint military exercises. After that, under the plan, the parties would start negotiations on establishing a modus vivendi, with Moscow and Beijing declaring their readiness to help Washington in this matter.

This plan, according to Mirzayan, is filled with positive steps for de-escalation. It does not create trust issues of the kind that surround proposals involving the lifting of sanctions in exchange for the renunciation of North Korea's nuclear program. It does not demand tough verification measures, since neither nuclear tests nor large scale US-South Korean exercises are something that can be concealed.

But the US, unfortunately, has already rejected the plan. There are two reasons for this, the analyst notes. "First, it cretes an unpleasant precedent. South Korea is obliged to sacrifice its sovereign right to conduct exercises on its territory in exchange for North Korean compliance with sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (which, it's worth recalling, prohibit Pyongyang from conducting missile tests)."

US and South Korean marines carrying out drills. File photo.

"The second reason is subjective and concerns US interests. The US understands that the essence of this proposal from Moscow and Beijing is not so much a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue, as it is a weakening of the US military presence in East Asia. The Sino-Russian project would lead to a weakening of the US-South Korean alliance. This would contribute to a reduction in the level of tension on the peninsula, and at some point, Seoul may decide that they need an ally that protects them not only militarily, but also mediates negotiations with North Korea, i.e. China. The US cannot allow Beijing to strengthen its position in South Korea at Washington's expense. That's not even to mention the fact that a cessation of North Korean missile tests will make the US missile defense system in South Korea useless."

In other words, Mirzayan notes, "the Americans have fallen into the same trap as the Chinese. Effectively, the US has refused a diplomatic solution to the problem. And that means that all the claims that it intended to address to the Chinese (i.e. their unwillingness to solve the North Korean issue) can now safely be addressed to the US itself. And that means that the reputational costs will hit not  Beijing, but Washington."

Seeing the nature of the problem, Seoul has grown increasingly skeptical about the deployment of the US missile defense system, and is considering building dialogue with Pyongyang without American 'help.' "Finally, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has even said that intends to promote the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia through North Korea…All of this, of course, would weaken the position of the United States in the region," the observer concludes.