North Korea: More than meets the eye
The sabre-rattling by North Korea in the form of nuclear and missile testing has been met with the usual response in the form of sanctions – this time deeper and stronger than usual, with hints that they will hurt.
Most analysts are seeing more of the same. We are used to that. Every time North Korea disappears from the radar screen, it comes back to remind the outside world that it is still there and attention needs to be paid to its existence.
Some venture the view that the new and fragile regime is signalling its intention of being as much a nuisance as the former regime was. Maybe, it is added, new leader Kim Jong-un contemplates domestic reforms and wants to reassure the military that its position is safe. The strident message to the military to be prepared for war is viewed more or less through this same lens.
And yet, there may be more to it than meets the eye.
Let us go back a couple of years when the United States announced two major shifts in its defence posture. First, a shift from air-land battle designed for a land war in Central Europe against the Soviet Union, to air-sea battle designed for operations in the Pacific. A little bit later, the rebalancing of its global military posture was announced, with 60 per cent of the navy’s ships to be in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 and an increased number of aircraft in 2017 as well.
It is a golden rule in diplomacy – at least if you want to be successful – to make sure that your intentions are read by other counties, in particular those directly affected, in the way you intend. It doesn’t seem that the US followed the rule in this case.
The missing part of this strategic shift is to clarify what the purpose is. What is it actually the US wants? Is it a move in the game to contain China (although it has denied this publicly)? A resolve to counter the Chinese military build-up? A gesture to assure Japan that the Treaty on Mutual Cooperation and Security is as fundamental to the US as it may be to Tokyo?
Is the US’ look to Australia a signal that it can be counted upon to stay in the Western Pacific for a long time? National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon this week described the US as a “resident Pacific power, resilient and indispensable”.
There are many interpretations and every one of them is as good as the other one, because we don’t know for sure. Perhaps the US itself doesn’t know.
The announcements were read elsewhere, obviously. The dispute between China and Japan about islands in the South China Sea may spring from each country’s interpretation of what the US strategic realignment means for them. In Japanese eyes, perhaps a stronger US commitment; in Chinese eyes, perhaps a further uncertainty about US attitudes that it seeks to test.
THE DOMINATING FEAR IN PYONGYANG
A good guess is that nowhere else was these steps analysed more carefully and with more anxiety than in North Korea.
For decades North Korea has managed a policy steered by its fear of a US assault. To the outside world it may sound strange, but reading into what North Korea says and does, it seems crystal-clear that this fear dominates its policies.
Having digested the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, what is going on in Afghanistan and US policies toward Iran, North Korea may ponder whether it is next in line for “regime change” and if so, what to do to prevent it.
We now know the conclusion it has drawn. And this should not have come as a surprise. North Korea is stepping up its arsenal of deterrence in the form of weapons of mass destruction and, even more important, has solidified links with another outcast in the eyes of the US: Iran.
We do not know for sure, but a good guess is that the nuclear testing was partly on behalf of Iran. This country is allegedly pursuing a programme to build nuclear weapons, but adhering to the Non-Proliferation Treaty means it cannot undertake testing.
A North Korean – Iran alliance makes sense. They are short of friends and feel under pressure from the US. They are both racing to acquire weaponry that may deter the US.
And they recently signed a Treaty of Scientific Cooperation, which bears resemblance to a similar treaty between North Korea and Syria in 2002 which was intended to help Syria build nuclear weapons – an effort that was derailed by an Israeli air attack.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Stuidies, and Adjunct professor at the Singapore Management University and Copenhagen Business School