Since the start of his term in office, in January 2017, U.S. President D. Trump has been diplomatically offensive in East Asia. First, it was the issue of Taiwan, which agitated to a good extent the U.S. – China relationship before he started his mandate, an agitation that hasn’t ended at all following the dinner that President Trump and President Xi had in the U.S., when American Tomahawks were heading toward Syria (April).
The crisis on the Korean Peninsula, now ongoing, erupted back then too. It’s difficult to say whether President D. Trump acted like that – initially irritating China – in order for them to jointly solve the crisis in Korea, but the two crises are basically linked. Not just by the fact that they are simultaneously occurring events but because, on one hand, the American President suggested so – in an April 21 tweet he wrote that “China is very much the economic lifeline to North Korea so, while nothing is easy, if they want to solve the North Korean problem, they will” – and, on the other hand, Beijing did not cease to lobby for a peaceful solution to this complex dossier.
China’s position must be understood in the context in which Washington never ceased to state that the military solution is not off the table in the North Korean nuclear crisis. The latter is not new at all – the first agreement on stopping the North Korean communist regime’s nuclear programme was concluded by Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994. But, since 2006, when the first underground test of a nuclear device was conducted by North Korea, missile launches – missiles with ranges in excess of or below 2,000 km – have multiplied and worry Washington and the whole international community. While there were 9 such launches in 2006, in 2009 there were 15 and another underground nuclear test, in 2013 – two years after the current communist leader came to power – there were 8 missile launches and one nuclear test, in 2015 there were 14 missile launches, and in 2016 a veritable performance was reached – 21 missile launches (9 of which exceeded a range of 2,000 km, as well as the launch of a satellite) but also two nuclear tests. So far this year, there have been 9 missile launches, the latest taking place on Sunday, May 14, when a medium-range missile was launched. What this escalation of missile and nuclear tests conducted in the last decade makes clear is the fact that, on one hand, North Korea is trying to optimise the miniaturisation of nuclear warheads to adapt them to usable missiles and, on the other hand, that it seeks to acquire intercontinental missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory. Both of Pyongyang’s goals can only alert the whole international community, especially Washington.
The latest test, which occurred on May 14, allegedly reveals, according to experts, the fact that the communist regime has an intercontinental missile programme, apart from its medium- and short-range missile programmes (according to some specialists, the missile launched on Sunday reached an apogee of 2,000 km, which entails an operational range of around 2,800 km, so that in optimal conditions it could reach U.S. territory – the island of Guam). Worth mentioning that the missile launched on Sunday landed closer to Russia than to Japan, a fact not overlooked by the U.S. President, the White House press release noting: “the missile impacting so close to Russian soil – in fact, closer to Russia than to Japan – the president cannot imagine that Russia is pleased.”
It may come as a surprise that the North Korean communist regime carried out another missile test, outlining a programme that aims to reach the capability of hitting the U.S. And the surprise is motivated by recent developments, which seemed to usher-in détente and dialogue.
Firstly, it must be mentioned that contacts between North Korean and American teams were already made last week in Oslo, Norway, the speculation being that Washington is open to dialogue with Pyongyang. The previous meeting of this type took place well over six months ago, in Geneva. It’s true that American officials do not confer much importance to such contacts, which are not periodical, between North Korean officials – this time the head of the Foreign Ministry’s North America directorate – and members of some U.S. think-tanks. However, observers cannot help but consider the fact that the circumstances and the timing of the meeting in Norway (after President Trump outlined even his openness to meet the North Korean leader) were creating the outlook of a kind of “exploratory” talks between the two sides. Moreover, just a day before the test was carried out, one North Korean official stated that the regime is ready to negotiate with Washington “if the conditions are set.”
The day after, Washington’s reaction to the North Korean gesture was particularly severe, the action being characterised as a “provocation” and Washington calling on the international community to adopt sanctions against the culprit state: “Let this latest provocation serve as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions against North Korea.”
Similarly, the North Korean “provocation” can be deemed a surprise from the standpoint of what has happened in South Korea in recent weeks. The election of a new president in this country, after a lengthy political crisis – an event some experts see as the immediate origin of the current crisis triggered by the internationally-banned tests carried out by Pyongyang –, saw Moon Jae In as the winner, a supporter of resumption of dialogue with the North and of the reaffirmation of the “sunshine policy,” showing a somewhat reserved attitude toward the deployment of an U.S. anti-missile system in South Korea, meant to offer protection against the threat from the North. President Moon immediately called the North Korean missile test “a reckless provocation, a grave challenge to the peace and security of the Korean peninsula and the international community.” Open to dialogue with the North, he reiterated the fact that it cannot be induced unless Pyongyang changes its attitude. Similarly, Japan, Russia and Australia and other neighbouring states firmly condemned the behaviour of the North Korean regime.
The biggest surprise however must have occurred in Beijing, where President Xi Jinpin hosted during this period a large summit bringing together 30 heads of state and government, summit dedicated to China’s grand strategy known under the acronym of OBOR (One Belt, One Road), strategy launched in 2012. Meant to inject around 900 billion dollars in the global economy in the following years, energising globalisation on four continents, this grand strategy forecasts China’s presence in the global world at a historically unprecedented scale. As ‘The Guardian’ put it, OBOR “is a confusing title but it could turn out to be the largest ever infrastructure project with close to a trillion dollars being invested across the globe.”
The Chinese Foreign Minister condemned the North Korean military test and pointed out that “At present the situation on the peninsula is complex and sensitive, and all relevant parties should exercise restraint and do nothing to further worsen regional tensions.” The fact that the test coincided with the great and lengthily-prepared summit in Beijing was not commented, but it’s worth reminding that Pyongyang recently warned its great and allied neighbour with “catastrophic consequences” in case pressures for the abandonment of the nuclear programme continue. It’s worth noting that one proof of the North Korean communist regime’s unpredictability is the fact that the delegations of the two Korean states, present in Beijing at the event dedicated to OBOR, held a meeting precisely on the day in which Pyongyang’s test took place. Moreover, the South Korean lawmaker who led his country’s delegation subsequently stated that during the meeting “he had a conversation on various issues with his North Korean counterpart. He added that he got the impression that Pyongyang is looking forward to having a summit with Seoul.”
Hence, the crisis on the Korean peninsula is far from over, and the North Korean regime does not hesitate to take advantage to consolidate and optimise its nuclear arsenal. It’s the survival strategy of an isolated and stagnant regime that defies international peace and security. Potentially premeditating a very hard negotiation stance through these “provocations” toward the international community, Pyongyang, unpredictable and defiant even toward its backers, launches the signal that it does not intend in any way to abandon its nuclear programme.