Quad in quandary as North Korea continues to play dangerous game in Peninsula
China and more recently Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine have found in North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a useful nuisance that can keep the US, Japan and South Korea distracted
The only time North Korea's Kim Jong Un is away from the media spotlight is when he is not doing anything. Much of the time in the recent past he is busy fobbing off missiles into the Sea of Japan or verbally threatening to destroy South Korea and the United States. South Korea and members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the QUAD, have been left with no option than to take up Chairman Kim’s antics seriously for only a few days ago he has threatened to “exponentially” increase his nuclear weapons arsenal, both strategic and tactical. All this in a country where but for a handful of fortunate, the rest of the population goes to bed hungry.
There is no question of the fact that North Korea has been one of the major destabilizing influences in the Indo Pacific that major powers like Japan and the United States have to take seriously. Domestically, Chairman Kim has given every indication that all the rhetoric on economic development being the Number One imperative would only be on paper; for the priority is on developing nuclear weapons and missiles. China and more recently Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine have found in Chairman Kim a useful nuisance that can keep adversaries distracted. And media reports of Moscow having to depend on arms replenishments from Pyongyang are not without a touch of irony and humor.
It is not as if Beijing and Moscow are unaware that Chairman Kim is allowed to go around like an unguided missile in the Asia Pacific. Neither of the two powers would want to see an irrational actor with a nuclear weapon in his hand. And both China and Russia have already seen the counter-productiveness of Chairman Kim’s belligerence and arrogance—a critical decision of Japan to breach its one per cent of GDP spending on defence, principally citing the threats from China and North Korea. The missile fireworks in the Korean peninsula and Sea of Japan are only further strengthening the right wing resolve in Japan. But Beijing and Pyongyang cannot have it both ways: increase tensions in the Indo Pacific and then scream bloody murder when Japan responds by talking about militarism and second world war.
In an immediate perspective, the “noises” of Chairman Kim have been heard loud and clear in both Seoul and Washington, especially in the latter and are said to be gearing up for massive exercises including nuclear drills that is bound to give Pyongyang additional excuse for further ratcheting up the rhetoric, firing off few more missiles or perhaps set off another nuclear test that has been on the anvil for quite some time now. Whether it is the seventh or the eighth since Chairman Kim came to the helm of affairs hardly matters. The dangers of a conflict and its consequences are debated for real in South Korea and Japan especially in the context of a new aggressive support to Pyongyang from Beijing and Moscow but for different reasons.
Given the brutal nature of the so-called Hermit Kingdom, the outside world can only be whistling in the dark thinking of any “regime change” in Pyongyang in any foreseeable future. That leaves the Quad in a real quandary of ways in dealing with Chairman Kim. One thinking is that Pyongyang is only pushing its luck by upping the ante as South Korea gets closer to getting into the Quad in a formal sense even if Japan may have reservations. As it is China has labelled the Quad as “Asian NATO” and with the possible entry of South Korea that characterization would be nearly complete. But it remains to be seen if Tokyo sees the inclusion of Seoul as sharing of the burden or in a dilution of its own strategic and economic importance.
India is a member of the Quad but not directly impacted by the actions of Chairman Kim and the responses of Japan and the US. But New Delhi is indeed watching the developments carefully as it impacts the region of the Indo Pacific that includes waterways that are critical chokepoints for navigation in the event of a military showdown, and not just confined to the South China and East China Seas. But India has been quite concerned about the dangers of nuclear and missile proliferation and for quite some time has been closely following the clandestine Beijing-Pyongyang-Islamabad network.
Extending humanitarian assistance through the World Health Organisation has not prevented India from making its points of view at the United Nations Security Council debates pertaining to North Korea.” Proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies is a matter of concern, and they have an adverse impact on peace and security in the region, including on India,” India had maintained in a Security Council debate on North Korea’s missile launches in November 2022.
But in all the fuss over Chairman Kim’s militaristic offensives in the Indo Pacific or Asia Pacific, the principal actor in Quad, the United States, has still not figured a political path towards Pyongyang. For all his foibles President Donald Trump met Chairman Kim thrice including a meeting on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); but nothing came out of these summits and the reason was not hard to fathom. It was a one-way street that Chairman Kim had to travel by giving up his nuclear weapons program and nothing in return by way of loosening up the sanctions’ regime.
The international community knows punitive measures are hurting North Korea but not the ruling elites and that Chairman Kim would not be losing any sleep over the worsening conditions of his people. Piling more punitive measures in an already exhausted list is hardly going to matter. And in 2023 the focus on North Korea is unlikely to be on any imminent succession but more on the “perfection” guessing game of the intelligence community on Kim Jong Un’s short-and- long-range missiles.
***The writer was a senior journalist in Washington covering North America and the United Nations. Views expressed are personal.