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#5404, 5 December 2017

East Asia Compass

Denial and Provocation: Failure of US' North Korea Policy
Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS

North Korea's Hwasong-15 missile test on 29 November 2017 reached an altitude of 4,500 km and flew around 960 km. According to estimates, the missile would have flown around 13,000 km had it been fired in the right trajectory. If true, this means that North Korean missile capability is now within striking distance of Washington, DC. The test took place after a lull of almost two and half months, a period that included US President Donald Trump's 12-day visit to East Asia.

North Korea watchers have been keen to figure out Kim Jong-un's reaction to Trump's visit. Although North Korea remained restrained during the visit itself, the recent missile test has proved that Pyongyang is adamant on its course and that US' policy has failed to achieve its objective. Through contradictory announcement and statements on the issue from Trump and his administration, the US has attempted a 'game of madmen' with Kim.

After the test, North Korea announced the successful completion of its nuclear and delivery programme-related targets. Rodong Shinmun, the official North Korean newspaper, noted that North Korea had “finally realised the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” This is an alarming state of affairs, and all options to deal with North Korea's nuclear progress must be considered. It is also important to analyse whether the North Korean announcement could be taken as its intent not to test any further. If North Korea has indeed achieved its targets, it may be ready to come to the negotiation table. This in fact could be an opportunity to talk to North Korea, though it cannot be guaranteed that such negotiations would necessarily lead to North Korea’s de-nuclearisation.

However, it seems that the US is going continue its policy of denial vis-à-vis North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes. A US official told a CNN correspondent that the “North Korean missile broke up upon re-entry.” This seems to be a continuation of a past tactic, which is to doubt North Korea's nuclear and missile advancements. Earlier, too, the US administration maintained that North Korea could not have sophisticated and miniaturised warheads, and that its missiles were not precise and reliable enough to travel beyond East Asia. Gradually, many of these claims have been proven wrong. However, the US administration has deliberately been moving the goal post or ‘redlines’ regarding North Korea.

Another standard response came from the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. She said that if war comes, “the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.” She further threatened that in case China did not restrict its oil supply to North Korea, the US would “take the oil situation into its own hands.” This is part of the larger pattern of threatening statements from the US administration in response to North Korean developments.

Within a week of the test, the US has begun its largest ever joint air exercise with South Korea, called 'Vigilant Ace'. The exercise will last five days, with the participation of 230 aircraft, including 24 stealth fighter jets (six F-22s and 18 F-35s). Although the US held a similar exercise in 2016, its timing and more significantly, the scale, are unusual enough for North Korea to characterise it as a grave provocation."

The US policy towards North Korea seems to be based on denying Pyongyang's capability and provoking it further until Jong-un makes a mistake. The idea is that if North Korea crosses the ‘redline’ by attacking South Korea, Japan or US territory, the Trump administration would be justified in undertaking military action to eliminate the Jong-un regime. If North Korea makes the first move, it will not be easy for China to come to the rescue. In fact, this policy will cost enormous human and material damage to South Korea as well as Japan, and is not a wise course of action. 

However, this adventurist US policy of seems to have been well deciphered by North Korea. The regime has been careful not to cross the ‘redline’ and is working within its limits. It has been able to concentrate on developing its nuclear and missile programmes without crossing the 'redline'. It could be said that because of the US policy, North Korea has been able to make huge strides in a very short span of time, which would otherwise have taken decades. It is high time to accept that not only is the US policy dangerous, it has been successfully used by North Korea to augment its nuclear and missile development goals. Only after this acknowledgement can a better policy option be considered.

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