x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Battleships can no longer answer North Korean bluster

The US's decline is defined by its inability simply to use leverage to force North Korea to heel and its schizophrenia by its behaving as if it does.

It's a time-honoured tradition that when a potentate on some distant shore rattles his sabre to challenge Pax Americana, an aircraft carrier battle group is dispatched to nearby waters to demonstrate the US capacity to project power. So, it came as no surprise last Wednesday when the US president Barack Obama ordered the USS George Washington to join South Korean naval forces for exercises along the frontline with North Korea - after all, the North Koreans had shelled a South Korean island, killing four people in the midst of South Korean war games elsewhere along the perennially volatile boundary.

Mr Obama's gunboat diplomacy may be in keeping with this tradition, but under the circumstances, the gesture may be both empty and dysfunctional. Washington wants to calm things down, yet as the South Korean-US naval manoeuvres began on Sunday, the escalating rhetoric suggested that the manoeuvres could instead ratchet up tension.

To prove the point, the USS George Washington sailed into the same waters just a few months ago in response to North Korea allegedly sinking a South Korean Naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. But that didn't deter the latest assault. North Korea knows that while its own regime would be unlikely to survive a full-blown confrontation, its adversaries have far more to lose in a fight.

South Korea is one of the world's leading economies, while North Korea is a basket case. But even without Pyongyang's small arsenal of crude and unwieldy nuclear weapons, it has enough conventional artillery pointed at Seoul to destroy the South Korean capital within a half hour. Having less to lose than its opponent gives Pyongyang the edge.

Over the two decades since the end of the Cold War, Pyongyang has grown adept at provoking security crises. This is its chosen method of diplomatic communication. And its brinkmanship has been remarkably successful in extracting concessions, highlighting the decline and growing schizophrenia of the US role as ruler of the waves. The US's decline is defined by its inability simply to use leverage to force North Korea to heel and its schizophrenia by its behaving as if it does. The US sends in warships while actually relying on China -North Korea's only significant ally - to tamp things down.

But a display of US gunboat diplomacy in China's sphere of influence is not likely to make an increasingly assertive Chinese leadership more amenable to helping Washington out here, even though Obama administration officials told the US media that the move was designed to spur Beijing into action. China's regional interests are neither those of North Korea nor the US, and its responses will be based on its own goals - to prevent war or the collapse of the North Korean regime, which would create a humanitarian crisis and potentially also result in the creation of a US-allied regime on China's doorstep. And, perhaps, to assert its own regional primacy at the expense of the US.

It was North Korea that provided the first indication that the then US president George W Bush would pursue a foreign policy radically different from the realism of his father's administration. A month into his presidency, he dismissed Colin Powell's suggestion that Washington would continue to follow the Agreed Framework approach of its predecessor, based on offering economic and political concessions to Pyongyang in exchange for nuclear restraint. Mr Bush declared that the North Koreans could not be trusted, and he made clear that he preferred regime change. A year later, North Korea was listed on Mr Bush's "Axis of Evil". But Mr Bush's was a passive regime-change policy, simply folding his arms and refusing to have anything to do with the regime in Pyongyang. So North Korea simply upped the ante, eventually testing its first nuclear weapons on Mr Bush's arms-folded watch.

Pyongyang's goal, according to the former US president Jimmy Carter - who was sent by the Clinton administration as an emissary to negotiate with North Korea in 1994 in the crisis it prompted by declaring its intention to build nuclear weapons - is to ensure the survival of its regime. As odious as that regime may be, Mr Carter believes that avoiding a war may require that the US engage with Pyongyang on its prime demand: a formal peace agreement with the United States.

The Korean war was never formally ended, but an armistice was agreed in July 1953 between North Korea, China and the US - South Korea had no seat at the table, and then, as now, Pyongyang deemed it a "puppet regime" of the US.

"Pyongyang has sent a consistent message that during direct talks with the United States, it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programmes, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the 'temporary' cease-fire of 1953," Mr Carter argued in The Washington Post. "We should consider responding to this offer. The unfortunate alternative is for North Koreans to take whatever actions they consider necessary to defend themselves from what they claim to fear most: a military attack supported by the United States, along with efforts to change the political regime."

China, in fact, walked Mr Bush back from regime change, pressing him to agree to talk to the North Koreans, albeit through the Six-Party format that allowed the US to save face by bringing Japan, Russia, South Korea and China to the table. Mr Bush found himself talking to the "untrustworthy" and "evil" regime - and essentially reviving a deal on the same principles as the one from Mr Clinton that he had so derided. Regime change was fine as a bumper sticker, but not as a policy. Not that Pyongyang made it easy for Mr Bush - when North Korea didn't get what it wanted in the stilted six-party format, it simply ramped up its nuclear and missile testing, as well as its provocations along the border.

Mr Obama has adopted the traditional failed response of flexing military muscle that Washington has no intention of using, but nonetheless raising the risk of escalation. Perhaps China will pull his chestnuts out of the fire - but only according to its own script, as Mr Bush learned when forced by reality to abandon the policy of regime change.


Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at tonykaron.com