x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pyongyang grips the trigger, but only Seoul can avert war

It's not only North Korea that is in a belligerent mood these days.

The North Koreans are on a bender, and there is not much time for Washington to pull them back before they act on their dire threats and take everyone off the cliff with them.

North Asia is jittery and, therefore, unstable.

At the moment, South Korea is especially rattled. "The reason for the military's existence is to protect the country and the people from threats," Park Geun-hye, South Korea's president, said on Monday. "If any provocations happen against our people and our country, it should respond powerfully in the early stage without having any political considerations."

Up to now, "political considerations" have prevented leaders in Seoul from retaliating against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, their troublesome neighbour, for deadly assaults on their country. Lee Myung-bak, President Park's predecessor, did not meaningfully respond to two deadly North Korean attacks that killed 50 sailors, marines and civilians in 2010. The new leader - she took office on February 25 - reflects the growing frustration evident in society and cannot afford to exercise Mr Lee's caution. South Koreans look unwilling to absorb more blows.

And the South Koreans want the means to defend themselves. In a poll released in February by a private think tank in Seoul, a stunning 66 per cent of respondents said they wanted their country to develop nuclear weapons to deter the North. Ms Park, who came to office with the promise of opening a dialogue with Pyongyang, is now finding herself increasingly hemmed in by a populace no longer sloughing off threats.

Kim Jong-un, the North's leader, doesn't have to worry about public opinion, but he can't back down either. His concern is that he has only fragile support in a governing group in disarray. In power for less than 16 months, Mr Kim has not consolidated his position. He's purging officials loyal to his father, his predecessor, and he is even trying to change the structure of the regime by reducing the role of the military. At no time since 1949 has a North Korean ruler had a smaller base of support in Pyongyang.

As a consequence of his weak position, the inexperienced North Korean leader is making threats because, in the twisted logic of his state, aggression enhances his standing. Yet by threatening South Korea and the US he is backing himself into a corner. At some point, he may have to carry through.

The danger is that the inexperienced 29-year-old does not know where the line is. Kim Il Sung, his grandfather, and Kim Jong Il, his father, were masters of the art of murdering foreigners. But the boy despot could miscalculate, especially because angry South Koreans can now, unlike in the past, push their leaders toward retaliation.

In this volatile environment, the region has been looking to China to rein in its only formal military ally. Unfortunately, the Chinese are indirectly pushing the North Koreans into a more confrontational posture by substantially enhancing their ability to wage nuclear war. For instance, Beijing did that by transferring to the Korean People's Army mobile launchers for its new KN-08 nuclear-capable missile.

We should not be surprised that the Chinese are enabling the Kim regime. China is itself going through a tumultuous leadership transition, with the result that the People's Liberation Army, the most cohesive faction in the Communist Party, has gained power. Chinese flag officers have traditionally held pro-Pyongyang views, so it's unlikely that Beijing will act on its own to ditch its client state.

If China won't act, can America? In 2012 the US president, Barack Obama, tried to reach out to the young Kim Jong-un but his efforts were repeatedly rebuffed. The regime came to a comprehensive arrangement with the US on long-range missiles and nukes, but Mr Kim effectively repudiated the so-called Leap Day Deal just weeks after it was announced. Moreover, White House envoys also returned twice from secret trips to Pyongyang empty-handed. Because of discord inside the North Korean capital there is not much Washington can do by talking with the North Koreans at this point.

But the Obama team can work on calming the region, starting with long-time ally South Korea. B-2 stealth bomber flights sent last month from Missouri, and B-52s arriving from Guam, were probably intended to reassure the nervous South Korean public as much as intimidate the "Kimist" state. Only if Seoul feels secure will it be confident enough to exercise restraint.

The more difficult issue is Beijing. There are many Americans who say there is little they can do about a resurgent China because of its economic hold over the US economy. That, however, is not true, because the trade-dependent Chinese need America much more than America needs them.

Last year, China's overall merchandise trade surplus against the United States - a record $315 billion (Dh1.15 trillion) - was 136.3 per cent of its overall merchandise trade surplus. That means among other things that the Chinese, who run deficits with the rest of the world in order to rack up a surplus against America, are overly dependent on the US. The Chinese, unfortunately for them, cannot replace the American market, but Americans can buy goods elsewhere.

So Washington can feel confident in having tough discussions with China over its unhelpful policies on North Korea.

But the US doesn't have much time. Kim Jong-un could resort to violence after the annual US-South Korea military exercises conclude on April 30 and readiness falls back to normal.

The window for a solution on the Korean peninsula, unfortunately, looks like it will close soon.


Gordon G Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World

On Twitter: @GordonGChang