Today Northeast Asia confronts the world with a volatile mix of geopolitical competition and nuclear threats unseen since the beginning of the Cold War. The imbroglio over a nuclear armed and very dangerous Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) involving the United States, China, Republic of Korea (ROK), and other actors epitomizes this peril. The present crisis, however, is only the latest manifestation of a long-drawn entanglement that can be traced back to the 1950 Korean War, which was fought with the objective to unite the peninsula under a Sino-Soviet alliance. These efforts were thwarted by the United States and its allies under a United Nations (UN) mandate. The war, which ended in 1953 with an armistice that divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, but not a peace treaty – the belligerents are legally still at war – lies at very root of today’s confrontation.
Following the Korean War the two sides, unsurprisingly, had different objectives. These differences have endured, despite the Sino-US rapprochement in 1971-72, and the end of the Cold War; and have prevented a resolution of the nuclear challenges in Northeast Asia.
The US objective in the region was manifold: first, to ensure that the whole Korean peninsula did not become part of the Moscow-led axis, evidenced by the emergence of the Warsaw Pact; second, to provide security to its allies, particularly ROK; and third, simultaneously Washington wanted to ensure that the region in general and the peninsula in particular did not witness nuclear proliferation. Consequently, the United States and ROK signed a Mutual Defense Treaty on 1 October 1953, established the United States Forces Korea sub-command, and permanently deployed US troops and nuclear weapons in ROK. The US nuclear weapons, which numbered as many as 950 in 1967, were unilaterally withdrawn in 1991 at the end of the Cold War. However, the United States continues to provide a “nuclear umbrella” using nuclear bombers and submarines based elsewhere. At the same time the United States also ensured that ROK remained loyal to the non-proliferation pledge.
“Following the Korean War the two sides, unsurprisingly, had different objectives. These differences have endured…and have prevented a resolution of the nuclear challenges in Northeast Asia.”
The objective of the Sino-Soviet bloc, particularly Beijing – following the split with Moscow – was also multifold. First, to rebuff efforts to unite Korea under the US alliance system and make sure that a communist DPRK continued to provide a crucial buffer. Second, this in turn meant that the Sino-Soviet bloc was also willing to accept the hereditary communist setup in DPRK, and to ensure regime survival. Third, the purpose of preventing nuclear proliferation on the peninsula was only to serve the first two objectives; indeed, proliferation was tolerated as it was seen to support the key objectives.
Consequently, DPRK signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation & Mutual Assistance with both the Soviet Union and China in July 1961. Both treaties called for military assistance in case of an attack. Indeed, Article 2 of the treaty with China went as far as to declare “all necessary measures to oppose any country or coalition of countries that might attack either nation”. After China’s nuclear test in 1964, this tacitly included a nuclear security guarantee. After the Cold War, Russia refused to renew this treaty and it lapsed in 1995. However, China and DPRK renewed their treaty in 2001 for another 20 years until 2021.
The 2001 renewal of the Sino-DPRK treaty notwithstanding, Pyongyang had already initiated its nuclear weapons program, declared its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (in 1993), formally withdrew in 2003, and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. Since then DPRK has conducted six tests, the latest one in September 2017, possibly a thermonuclear test. Today, DPRK has all the trappings of a nuclear armed state.
DPRK’s reasons for pursuing a program to develop an independent nuclear deterrent was probably driven by two factors. First was Pyongyang’s perception that in the post-Cold War “uni-polar” era, the United States and its allies were committed to a policy of overthrowing longstanding regimes, especially when these regimes did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or gave up their programs. This notion was strengthened following the so-called 2003 “preventive” war by the United States against Iraq’s alleged WMD programs, and the 2011 UN mandated intervention led by US allies in Libya, which resulted in the toppling of the Muammar Qaddafi regime after it had surrendered its WMD programs.
Moreover, Beijing shared the regime preservation concerns of the second and now third generation of Pyongyang’s hereditary leadership as serving China’s crucial geopolitical goals in Northeast Asia. To this end, China appears to have supported DPRK’s nuclear quest through acts of commission and omission. For instance, an Institute for Science and International Security report alleged that China had allowed the export of material (in violation of UN sanctions) to DPRK, which would enable Pyongyang to build hydrogen bombs. Similarly, a Washington Post report claimed that DPRK’s rockets are still being built with some crucial Chinese components. Other reports suggest that DPRK’s proliferation “activities involve Chinese facilitators or have a nexus in China”. This pattern is not dissimilar to the support that China also provided another crucial ally and neighbor – Pakistan.
Indeed, China’s tacit support to DPRK’s nuclear weapon program might be considered a form of extended deterrence – not unlike that offered by the United States to ROK – but with graver consequences both for the non-proliferation regime as well as nuclear stability in Northeast Asia. For instance, with DPRK’s growing indigenous capabilities and an unruly leader at the helm, Beijing’s ability to manage its truculent neighbor and rowdy ally is being severely tested. In fact, on several occasions – such as during the 9th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Xiamen when DPRK conducted its sixth and, possibly, first hydrogen bomb – Pyongyang is denting China’s efforts towards building a new world order. Similarly, Pyongyang’s antics have provided the rationale for Washington to deploy missile defense systems, which – much to Beijing’s chagrin – also have the ability to potentially counter China’s deterrence capabilities.
Unsurprisingly then, every effort to stop DPRK’s determined march towards building its nuclear capability has failed, including the 1994 Framework Agreement (which collapsed in 2003), the Six Party Talks (which were discontinued in 2009), the plethora of UN Security Council sanctions, and the Trump administration’s convoluted policy ranging from “fire and fury” to negotiations.
None of the present options to address the DPRK proliferation imbroglio in isolation – use of force, sanctions, or diplomacy – are likely to work. The only way to deal with the proliferation challenge posed by the DPRK is to also try and resolve the geopolitical contestation that lingers on from the unfinished war of 1950. This would require the United States, China and, perhaps, Russia along with DPRK and ROK to formalize the status quo with a formal peace treaty. That might still not be enough for DPRK to give up its nuclear arsenal but it might just prevent an unacceptable nuclear exchange.
Featured image credit: “Flag of North Korean leaders” by Jgaray, Nicor, Coronades03, P388388, Oppashi. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.