David vs. Goliath: The Korean Peninsula Crisis in Four Questions

On November 29, North Korea conducted its twelfth (out of fourteen) successful ballistic missile tests in 2017, a test whose range is estimated to be 13,000 km. This last test comes after a very-welcome lull during Trump’s trip to Asia that lasted several weeks. By tacit agreement, Kim Jong-un observed a relative calm, leaving the door open to diplomatic channels. Trump, meanwhile, was reserved and was not as brave during his Asian journey, as he let it be known in his tweets and public outings.

Why this last test?

Probably seeing that the outcome was not being settled at the pace desired by Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un made a new display of power to remind the world (and especially the US) that North Korea is there, it must not be forgotten nor underestimated. Ultimately, North Korea wants to break its isolation and join the international community on a solid basis in which its regime is neither threatened nor destabilized.

How then to achieve the goal sought by North Korea?

Precisely by using its most powerful card, namely the nuclear weapon and long-range missiles capable of reaching US territory. It is a powerful card that has a significant deterrent when it comes to negotiations. The US will have to think twice before resuming a war with disastrous and lasting consequences, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki serving as examples.

However, for the DPRK, joining the international community means that it would have to give up its nuclear ambitions and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty from which it withdrew in 2003. And that’s where things get complicated! There is no question for the Hermit Kingdom to do so, for as long as the war with the US is not officially over; this situation hardly suits its neighbors and surrounding countries for various reasons.

What about the countries directly or indirectly impacted by the crisis?

Russia’s two-faced policy. Russia has no interest in having a conflict on its borders, especially a nuclear conflict with one of the protagonists being the US; the long-standing “enemy” with whom Russia is in direct (Russian interference in the US elections) and indirect (via NATO in the Baltic region in particular) conflict. On one side, Trump complicates the situation with his inflammatory rhetoric saying that Russia is not doing enough to defuse the crisis, denouncing the double-game policy conducted by Putin, who is officially supporting the economic sanctions against North Korea while informally, trade between the two countries is continuing. On the other side, Putin accuses the US of provoking North Korea, especially since the US never seems satisfied with its counterparts after signing agreements. There are many examples of this, the latest is Iran and the JCPOA that the US reneged on.

China’s policy of a fireman pyromaniac. The Middle Kingdom plays (1) the role of a firefighter while trying at the same time to reassure the international community and calm North Korea and (2) the role of arsonist by pushing Kim Jong-un to act under the table. Moreover, it is not without reason that the country is preparing for an escalation of the conflict by planning to set up several refugee camps along its border with North Korea. China’s ultimate goal is to deepen North Korea’s economic dependence, subdue the country, and ultimately, in the longer term, make it a Chinese dependency, but this will be difficult with Kim Jong-un acting more and more solo and with Beijing losing its control over him.

South Korea and Japan torn between the US and China. South Korea and Japan are somehow the collateral victims of a nuclearization policy and of an old conflict (much larger than current politics) that they do not want. They are worried and want peace, having already tasted the hardships and horrors of war bitterly. They officially rely on their American ally (which with Trump has become much more of a liability than anything else) while calling on the powerful Chinese firefighter for help. That said, this conflict does not prevent South Korea from continuing to offer financial assistance to North Korea (for example) in the context of Korean inter-cooperation.

The US, a colossus with clay feet, stuck in quicksand. The US is feeling the North Korean threat. While Tillerson says he is open to negotiations with the DPRK, Trump is undoing these diplomatic efforts by openly blasting allies and the enemy alike, which does not bode well for the outcome of the conflict. US antecedents with ‘‘evil axis’’ countries show that Iraq has become a quagmire and a disaster, while North Korea and Iran hold out and face a colossus that is having clay feet. The US is at a pivotal moment in its young history, where many changes are happening, and it is no longer the only major power in the world. Nowadays, a multipolar world is on the rise while the West is in crisis and no longer has economic and political monopoly. The US faces various crises on the international and national scene. The US cannot be everywhere at once; strategic choices must be made.

What will be the outcome of the US-North Korean conflict?

The total blockade that the US wants to impose on North Korea would bring the international community and the Hermit Kingdom to sit at a negotiating table. North Korea’s voice will carry weight and will be heard because of its nuclear capabilities. The US will never have its wish of imposing a total blockade granted.

That said, it is certain that Trump’s current attitude is to be controlled. A businessman who has become president does not have the finesse and the diplomatic sensibilities nor the knowledge of global geopolitical issues and their interdependencies. Only his interests matter, which are short-sighted, and even dangerous in some respects. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un is waiting for a blunder from the US to (re)act. Trump must (in no way) offer it to him; otherwise, it will lead to a near-global disaster. The world must learn lessons from history that should not be repeated, but this is the theory. Reality is entirely different!

Realistically speaking, the US must appease North Korea by keeping communication channels open while (1) justifying calls for help from its Japanese and South Korean allies and (2) preserving its economic interests with China, which is (and will be) an active part in this conflict’s resolution. Russia will also interfere in the conflict, being North Korea’s neighbor and a power that wants to re-establish itself on the world stage, not to mention having the winning card at its disposal, at the level of the UN Security Council. With China, Russia will seek compromise on the nature of sanctions and actions to take. China’s role is also crucial as a regional power close to the Hermit Kingdom.

However, the resolution of the conflict could come more from South Korea and Japan, who are trying to quietly get rid of the liability that has become the US and to turn to their common Confucian roots to solve this irritating situation of chronic belligerence intelligently. As Confucian countries, they are preparing for the worst scenario while hoping to avoid it; the stigma of war still alive. Common ground, a middle way, is what they will seek. To this end, a normalization of relations between North Korea and Japan is required. This will be strengthened through cooperation agreements, which will, in the long range, pave the way for economic development and, finally, to eventually resolve sensitive issues (i.e., abductions). North Korea and South Korea reunification should be sought in the long term. All these actions will be possible only if the US allows it. This is far from being an easy game! Both Trump and Kim Jong-un, being unpredictable, can turn things around on a whim! This unpredictability forces the Chinese (and the Japanese and South Koreans) to be constantly on the alert and prepare for the worst scenario, that is to say, a casus belli either being started by Trump (highly likely) or Kim Jong-un (less likely since a Confucian does not usually attack first). Meanwhile, the whole world is holding its breath with hopes of ending this conflict once and for all…

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr. Er-Rafia specializes in cross-cultural management, international affairs, strategy and organizational behavior. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia.

Dr. Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and over twenty business case studies.

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