North Korea’s nuclear grandstanding and inflammatory missile tests, President Trump’s anti-Pyongyang rhetoric and U.S. missile deployments have raised tensions in North East Asia. Our Senior Advisor for the Korean Peninsula Christopher Green looks at where South Korea’s 9 May presidential election fits into these newly complex dynamics.
Tensions mounted between North Korea (DPRK) and U.S. amid concerns DPRK could conduct sixth nuclear test at any time; U.S. rhetoric sharpened late month while China made repeated calls for restraint. U.S. President Trump and Chinese President Xi discussed DPRK during their first bilateral summit 6-7 April. Pyongyang launched possibly unsuccessful missile tests 5, 16 and 29 April; South Korea (ROK) 6 April tested ballistic missile with 800km range. U.S. 9 April announced U.S. carrier strike group Carl Vinson had been sent near Korean peninsula, prompting concern in Pyongyang; announcement later revealed to be false. DPRK 15 April revealed new missile mock-ups in parade marking 105th anniversary of birth of Kim Il-sung; 25 April held large-scale artillery drills near Wonsan. U.S. and ROK conducted military manoeuvres NE of Seoul the following day. U.S. and ROK reported Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) will soon be operational. Satellite imagery of Punggye-re nuclear test site posted 21 April appeared to show ability to conduct sixth nuclear test “at any time”. In 27 April interview Trump warned “major, major conflict” with DPRK is possible, said he was seeking diplomatic solution. U.S. Sec State Tillerson 27 April said U.S. open to negotiating with DPRK; addressing special session of UNSC 28 April called for tougher sanctions, said “all options for responding to future provocations must remain on the table”. China said willing to work with U.S. on finding lasting peaceful resolution to tensions on peninsula. Trump’s 27 April remarks that he wants Seoul to pay for THAAD system and wants to renegotiate “horrible” trade agreement caused anger in ROK, where cooperation with U.S. is subject of debate ahead of 9 May presidential election. Reports emerged late April of possible fuel shortages in DPRK including Pyongyang.
Prospects are bleak that the Six-Party Talks can lead to a denuclearised Korean peninsula, notably since North Korea has made nuclear weapons an integral part of its identity. The international community must open new channels of communication and interaction, give greater roles to international organisations, the private sector and civil society.
In the shadow of growing North Korean threats, South Korea needs to reform its intelligence apparatus to restore public confidence while enhancing the country’s intelligence capacity.
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour is testing the patience of China, its principal backer, but a consequential Chinese policy change, which the U.S. and its allies hope for, is not likely soon.
Despite last week’s abrupt shuffle at the top of the military leadership, Kim Jŏng-ŭn appears to be firmly established as the new leader of North Korea, completing a faster and smoother power transition than many experts anticipated.
Although North Korea has offered unconditional dialogue since January, South Korea is maintaining a tough policy line towards the North as Seoul approaches a year of electoral campaign politics. The risk of conflict remains serious, particularly in the area near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the military demarcation in the Yellow Sea.
As the number of defectors from North Korea arriving in the South has surged in the past decade, reconfiguring integration programs for them has become crucial.
China likely recognises that Pyongyang's technical progress has increased Washington's threat perception and sense of urgency.
North Korea could have been a subject on which China and the U.S. could have worked together to build confidence and trust between each other, but instead it's become a source of deeper mistrust.
Originally published in The Interpreter