North Korea, once only known for being the citadel of an unhinged dictator whose antics subjected his people to steadily increasing destitution, recently marched alongside host South Korea in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. The two Koreas even fielded a joint women’s hockey team.
Many commentators view these events as a temporary reprieve from the nuclear brinkmanship between the US and North Korea. However North Korea, through its “Olympic diplomacy", has decisively seized the advantage while at the same time stopping the doomsday clock that was ticking ominously close to midnight.
According to a study by the Center for Strategic And International Studies, North Korea’s maximum missile range went from 745 miles in 1990 to more than 8,000 miles in 2018. Having successfully accelerated its missile development programme in the teeth of international opposition, the time had come to cool the rapidly rising global tension. One had imagined that North Korea would have to be restrained by China, or crippled by US-led sanctions. But seizing the opportunity presented by the Olympics may have allowed it to return to the high table of nations on its own terms.
The story of North and South Korea closely follows a Bollywood plot-line now out of fashion—two twins separated at birth, in the aftermath of World War II, and brought up by two contrasting sets of foster parents—one in the Soviet-Chinese bloc and the other part of the US alliance. What makes the story more poignant is that the twins live in neighbouring compounds, and are perfectly conscious of each other’s presence. While they have internalized the antagonism of their foster parents, they also retain a measure of affinity for each other. Their foster parents have always tried to smother this affection to serve their own purposes.
The increasing nuclear tensions were yet another pretext to make South Korea a pawn in a larger game being played out in the South China Sea between the US and China. The ousted Korean president Park Geun-hye, and many before her, welcomed the personal benefits that came with accepting US patronage. But, Moon Jae-in, the current South Korean President, is known to favour an autonomous South Korea. He must have been keen to use the opportunity presented by the nuclear threat to override the US lobby within his own country and grasp the olive branch.
But will this spring quickly give way to another nuclear winter? While South Korea has publicly stated its commitment to a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula, there is little likelihood that North Korea will disarm itself completely—the example of Iraq’s fate remains fresh in memory. However, there could be a halt in further missile tests, especially since most of the goals of North Korea’s missile programme have already been achieved. South Korea’s missile capability is large enough to act as a deterrent to North Korean adventurism—even though Seoul being only 35km from the border gives North Korea a slight advantage. Thus we could be in a new normal.
The US may well have been taken into confidence by South Korea before the Olympic rapprochement. Yet, indubitably, the momentum seems to be shifting away from it. No doubt, it will persist with its efforts to bring the power of international law, and South Korean diplomacy to bear on North Korea’s missile programme. But it no longer has the luxury of branding North Korea as a deranged state, peopled by automatons, who could be dehumanized enough to be made the targets of a nuclear attack. This, despite the fact that a bunch of cheerleaders wearing identical smiles, and making perfectly synchronized gestures, is hardly the stuff that liberty is made of. It would now take a mistake by other stakeholders—increased Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, or another North Korean missile test—for the US to justify increased military presence in South Korea. Its only concrete option at the moment is the resumption of dialogue with North Korea.
The most important strategic principle in these talks, irrespective of the stated aim of de-nuclearization, has to be equal capability of deterrence of a nuclear attack—between North and South Korea, as well as between the US and North Korea. While North Korea has emphasized its aim to create missile capability to target US cities, it can achieve a similar level of deterrence by being able to target key US assets and allies, the risk to whom would prevent the US from initiating a nuclear attack. This can be achieved either if South Korea emerges as a protectorate of the US, as the Philippines once was (this is unlikely), or if the US creates a prized asset in the South China Sea within a radius of 3,000-4,000 miles of North Korea (currently it appears to have none which qualify as such). Then North Korea would be able to achieve deterrence vis-à-vis the US, with a lower level of nuclear capability, and can be pressed to reduce its missile arsenal. Such creative solutions seem to be beyond the US in its current state. Hence, for now, it is advantage North Korea.
I have earlier argued that the US-North Korea missile crisis is qualitatively different from the Cuban missile crisis as it pits a large nuclear power against a country that is minuscule in every respect, except its nuclear capability. The surprising developments with regard to the Olympics have shown that when the large power is using another country as a base for its operations, the assertion of friendship with that country can offer a way out.
There are important lessons for India and Pakistan in these developments.
Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.
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