By Kevin Rudd
Armed conflict on the Korean peninsula is an increasing possibility, but not a probability. I judge that the possibility is somewhere above 25 per cent, but less than the 50 per cent spoken of by others. But I’m worried that this number continues to edge upwards.
This reassessment has been driven in large part by the advances in North Korea’s military capabilities – most recently the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which many analysts believe has the range to strike the east coast of the US. The core reason given by Pyongyang for the development of its missile and nuclear programmes is regime survival.
In China, there is a brutal assessment about how this may play out. Whatever pause or cessation of the North’s nuclear programme might be deliverable, the Chinese see little chance that the North will ever scrap its nuclear bombs or ballistic missiles altogether. This in turn frames Chinese diplomacy towards North Korea.
So what are the possible scenarios?
Scenario one is that the United States, as China would wish, informally accepts North Korea becoming part of the global nuclear weapons club, and that the North develops its own sets of rules, procedures and doctrine that enable it to behave “responsibly” as a nuclear weapons state.
Scenario two is a US unilateral strike against the North’s known nuclear capabilities. Until recently, the view in Beijing was that Washington would never risk the possibility of a North Korean retaliation against South Korea and Japan, apart from the impact this would have on the US alliances with Seoul and Tokyo.
This is the view held by many others and around the world. But having had numerous conversations with Chinese friends and colleagues over the last few months, I sense that view may be changing.
The third option is diplomacy. But such a solution faces almost impossible hurdles. The US expects that China will intervene politically, diplomatically and militarily to pressure, and perhaps force Pyongyang to change course. China responds by saying there is a limit on what it can do, or is prepared to do.
The Chinese ask five core questions about this.
Why should we make a permanent enemy out of the North? Why should we cause the North to look to Russia rather than China for protection and international support, thereby enhancing Moscow’s stocks in Pyongyang and decreasing Beijing’s stocks?
Why should we cause the current regime in Pyongyang to topple without knowing what will replace it? Why should we be left to deal with the massive humanitarian consequences of a North Korean collapse? And why should we run the risk of Korean re-unification on US or South Korean terms, thereby placing a de facto US ally right along China’s border?
These go to the deepest conservative nature of Chinese strategic culture. Of course there is a different logic as well, which China also understands.
That the THAAD anti-missile system deployments in the South are a direct result of the North’s nuclear weapons advances. That the North’s behaviour towards the South is drawing South Korea and the United States even closer together. That the debate in the South to acquire its own nuclear deterrent will intensify – with newspaper polls in the South already reporting 60 per cent-plus support for South Korea going nuclear. And that a parallel set of forces are now being unleashed in Shinzo Abe’s Japan, with recent changes in Japan’s military posture, budget and related constitutional arrangements for the deployment of its defence capabilities.
Therefore the internal debate on North Korea in China is complex – both sets of voices are heard, although the former remains in the ascendancy.
What would a final diplomatic solution look like? There are some who suggest that a settlement lies in North Korea agreeing to either freeze, abandon or, in its most ambitious version, destroy its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities.
There is an open question as to whether any such North Korean assurances would be credible, verifiable or acceptable in Washington.
A further problem with this approach is where it leaves South Korea and Japan (and, for that matter, US territories in the Pacific) in terms of the existing reach of North Korean short- and medium-range missiles (both land and submarine-based). In other words, does this (in time) result in a decoupling of the US from its East Asian allies?
Some analysts may point to the elegance of such an ICBM freeze by the North. But whatever capabilities the North retains would continue to have formidable military and diplomatic potential. I’m not sure, therefore, whether such an approach would be acceptable in either Seoul or Tokyo. We should remember that one of Pyongyang’s core strategic objectives is to shatter US alliance solidarity.
This is not the only diplomatic initiative on the table. The notion of a freeze could also be extended to other categories. It might, for example, include a freeze on nuclear testing, or on other types of ballistic missiles. The challenge would be to engineer an ICBM freeze (with the potential to bring about the destruction of the arsenal) in addition to other elements of North Korea’s overall programmes.
This means that any initial freeze would be the first step in a series that, over time, once calibrated with parallel initiatives that would benefit the North Koreans, could conceivably bring about denuclearisation.
This brings us to the possibility of a final “grand bargain” on the Korean peninsula, which could include:
● an immediate “freeze for freeze”;
● a timetable for the destruction of the North’s nuclear weapons;
● a peace treaty signalling the formal conclusion of the Korean war;
● external security guarantees for the future of the North Korean regime;
● the economic reconstruction of the North; and
● a further adjustment of US troop numbers, including the final possibility of phasing out the US troop deployment.
This is not a definitive list. Any solution will require creative thinking. But diplomacy is the only way to avoid a repeat of the tragedies of the 20th century.