Global Watch

Escalating North Korean crisis – SA will not stay untouched

North Korean missle test
NK missle test.jpg

In the latest move to try and force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme, the US and its closest allies, seems set to embark on a global trade war.

The United States (US) ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Nikki Haley, told an emergency meeting of the world body’s Security Council (UNSC) the US will be presenting a new sanctions resolution on North Korea (NK) to be voted on this coming Monday. 

This move by the US, Britain, France, Japan, and South Korea comes after NK on Sunday conducted its sixth nuclear test on the back of a series of ‘missile provocations.’

The danger of the situation escalating into a full-blown trade war – with the US and China at the centre of it – was implicit in Haley’s threat that the US will impose sanctions on countries that conduct trade with North Korea.

Here-in lies might the rub for South Africa as member of the so-called BRICS grouping of countries. The two strongest members of BRICS, China, and Russia, reacted negatively to the US proposal.

In an immediate reaction to US’s latest new sanctions, China's UN ambassador Liu Jieyi warned that the crisis was worsening and emphasized the need for dialogue and a diplomatic solution. He urged agreement to a joint Chinese-Russian proposal, calling on NK to freeze its missile and nuclear tests and the US and South Korea to suspend joint military exercises. There was a similar reaction from the Russian ambassador, saying it was no way to get parties around a table to seek political solutions.

Meantime Russian president, Vladimir Putin warned of a global catastrophe unless a diplomatic solution is reached over North Korea. He, however, rejected US calls for more sanctions as “useless”, illustrating a growing polarising between the globe’s major powers over the NK-issue.

Past sanctions failed

Since NK tested its first nuclear device just more than a decade ago in 2006, no less than seven sets of sanctions, starting off with so-called technological sanctions have been passed by the UNSC against NK.

As events since July, when NK fired off two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – that apparently brought much of the US mainland into its range – proved, the sanctions failed to have the desired results.

There is no reason to believe that a new round of stepped-up sanctions, especially if NK’s main trading partner, China, does not support it, would persuade NK’s   Pyongyang to change course on its nuclear strategy.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University in an article in The Conversation points out, the NK regime “… perceived that Iraq and Libya were vulnerable to regime change because they could not deter the US or other powerful countries.

“As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself.”

In his reaction to the US and its allies’ latest sanctions proposal, Russia’s Putin forwarded a similar argument, despite condemning NK’s provocative actions when speaking to reporters at a BRICS summit in China this week. The examples of Iraq and Libya have convinced the North Korean leadership that only nuclear deterrence can protect them, so no sanctions can dissuade them, he said.

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya both came after the leaders of those countries submitted to international pressure and relinquished their programs of weapons of mass destruction in exchange for sanctions relief.

In another The Conversation article, Ben Habib warns that if the US goes to war with North Korea, it risks the lives of millions of people across the region.

“If the Trump administration talks tough and doesn’t follow through, it leaves America’s regional allies exposed – and gives China pole position in shaping relations in northeast Asia,” he adds.

About the economic sanctions route he concludes that if the “US threatens to squeeze China as a path to influencing North Korea, it risks a trade war it inevitably loses.”

President Trump has tweeted that the US “is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”.

Habib’s assessment that Trump is in a no-win corner and that in an increasingly bi-polar word – the US vs China – the NK-situation could become a “marker of US decline.”  He likens it to Britain’s 1956 “Suez Crisis,” when it over-reached in Egypt.

Implications of war

In another article, Habib analyse the risks involved should the US and partners embark on a military ‘solution’ to the impasse on NK having virtually reached its goal of becoming a member of the league of nuclear powers.

With an aircraft carrier on its way from the US to the Korean Peninsula; US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during a recent visit to South Korea saying “the policy of strategic patience has ended” with North Korea, and “all options are on the table” to denuclearise it; and South Korea’s  defence ministry saying was already strengthening its defences, in part by deploying more US-made Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile launchers, the danger of full scale military conflict has dramatically increased.

“In the context of US air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, the North Korean government would have little choice but to take the threat seriously. The risk of escalation to full-scale war has intensified,” Habib writes.

He, however points out, that so-called “surgical air strikes” in Syria or even missile sites in North Korea is one thing. “Bombing North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure is a different proposition.”

The nuclear program’s crown jewels – the bombs themselves, and the stockpiles of fissile material – are likely to be buried deep in secret, reinforced underground facilities, protected from aerial attack.

“Should air strikes successfully target nuclear facilities, there is a risk of toxic radioactive fallout contaminating surrounding regions both inside North Korea and in neighbouring countries. The fallout risk has long been recognised as one of the reasons discounting air strikes against North Korea as a viable military option,” Habib writes.

Then there is the risk of ”mission creep” should the US be drawn into an extended pacification and nation-building campaign. Its experience in Iraq should offer a cautionary tale about the risks of regime change by force in the absence of a plan to win the peace.”

There are also high risks involved for the US ally, South Korea – its capital, Seoul, is almost indefensible due to its geographic location.

Millions of lives in the region and wider could be lost in short succession after active hostilities start. It could also trigger a massive refugee crisis involving millions affecting many nations.

China the only winner?

Amongst most commentators there seem to be an almost universal perception that China, due to its location, strategic economic pull, is pivotal. In the words of Greg Wright of the University of the University of California, Merced: “China is the key to avoiding nuclear 'fire and fury' in North Korea.”

The North Korean crisis probably is marking the end of a single polar world, dominated by the US.

Also on the economic front China is asserting itself as a new super power in the global arena.

This week at the BRICS summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country will make available R1.03 billion in funding for BRICS co-operation plans. And, earlier this year China pledged $124bn to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond as a new way to boost global development.

Occupying its seat within the BRICS group with the status as being the gateway to Africa, one should not expect too much South African sympathy with the Americans with regards to the dangerous pickle it finds itself in with the North Korean situation.

If it should morph into a trade war, neutrality would be on paper the best option, but not an easy one to attain.

by Intelligence Bulletin Team

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