If there was any doubt that North-East Asia has become the most dangerous place on earth, with the prospect of a nuclear exchange, then recent events provide ample evidence that the region has attained this dubious distinction. Additionally, a new UN report, which went practically unnoticed, revealed that North Korea has continued its proliferation activities and these are growing in sophistication.
Following an unprecedented two nuclear and multiple ballistic missile tests last year alone, North Korea has upped the ante even further this year. A high-profile political assassination in Malaysia, using a deadly nerve agent, coincided with yet another missile test and the threat of an intercontinental ballistic missile test capable of striking the US. Then, on 7 March, in a dramatic show of force, Pyongyang simultaneously launched four missiles, which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Although this latest missile salvo was partly in response to the biggest annual joint military exercises of the US and South Korea being conducted in the region and partly in response to the impending deployment of the US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system, it nonetheless signalled, according to one observer, practice for nuclear war.
The stated objective of the joint exercises is to “pre-emptively ‘detect, defend, disrupt and destroy’ North Korean nuclear and missile facilities when an attack is imminent, in addition to defending South Korea”. North Korea’s multiple launches of nuclear-capable missiles were intended to signal to Washington and Seoul that Pyongyang would retaliate with a first strike designed to pre-empt any such attempt and to overwhelm the Thaad system, which is designed to intercept single missiles. This is not unlike Pakistan’s strategy vis-à-vis India.
The Thaad deployment has also caused perturbation in Beijing. While China is less worried that the system will intercept its long-range missiles, it is deeply troubled with the X-band radar that accompanies the Thaad system and has the ability to look deep into China and detect missiles in flight. Beijing disingenuously suggested that the US and South Korea call off their exercises in return for a promise that North Korea will not launch additional missiles or conduct nuclear tests. Predictably, this proposal was rejected resoundingly by Washington.
Even as nuclear tensions rise and attract global concern, Pyongyang’s proliferation activities continue unabated. According to the latest report of the panel of experts established pursuant to UN Security Council resolution 1874 on North Korea, the state is “flouting sanctions through trade in prohibited good with evasion techniques that are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication”.
The report reveals that North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau uses foreign nationals as facilitators and relies on many front companies in several countries. This modus operandi was evident in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. For instance, North Korea has allegedly been selling battlefield radio systems (banned under UN sanctions) through a front company called Global Communications in Malaysia. In 2014, three North Koreans were reportedly detained while trying to smuggle nearly half-a-million dollars in cash at Kuala Lumpur airport. Malaysia was a favourite country for their operations because, until the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, North Koreans were allowed to travel visa-free. Interestingly, Malaysian citizens are the only ones allowed to travel visa-free to North Korea; even the Chinese need visas (except for a couple of tourist locations).
The UN report warns that North Korea’s “ability to conceal financial activity by using foreign nationals and entities allows them to continue to transact through top global financial centers” (like Malaysia, Singapore and China). This is not dissimilar to Pakistan’s proliferation network led by A.Q. Khan, which, curiously, also used Malaysia.
The UN report lamented that “implementation (of sanctions) remains insufficient and highly inconsistent”. Given the present nuclear imbroglio in North-East Asia involving China and the US, both permanent UN Security Council members, the implementation is likely to remain ineffective.
Indeed, resolving the confrontation between China, the US and North and South Korea is a priority but so far the way ahead is not clear. The relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing (which is North Korea’s biggest trading partner) is key to a resolution. While China has recently banned the trade of some items, the list is still not exhaustive. Here the US Thaad deployment might convince Beijing of Washington’s impatience and frustration and force it to do more.
The Thaad deployment also poses a dilemma for China: Should it stand by its ally at the cost of its own deterrence vis-à-vis the US or should it ensure its own deterrence even as it jettisons its ally? China’s instinctive approach is to do both by targeting bans on South Korean companies and political leaders who are in favour of the Thaad deployment while supporting those opposed. The fact that China is also South Korea’s biggest trade partner does give Beijing leverage, as does the ignominious dismissal of President Park Geun-hye, a Thaad supporter.
Given the Donald Trump administration’s anti-trade instinct, China’s will might just prevail. Besides, resolving this crisis requires greater focus than the Trump administration appears capable of even when they are seriously engaged.
W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.