North Korean Noose Tightens?

by John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS—Will there be conflict on the Korean peninsula? Shall the long simmering tinderbox finally explode in a nuclear flash? Or shall everybody step back from the brink, take a deep breath and allow diplomacy to finally defuse this ticking time bomb in Korea?

The answer rests with one man: North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. So far Comrade Kim’s reckless behavior with the sixth nuclear test and a rash spate of missile firings including a rocket over Japan, hardly argues for the peaceful path.

Yet in a deft piece of American diplomacy, the UN Security Council unanimously (that means with Chinese and Russian support too) passed a tough sanctions resolution (#2375) further tightening the economic noose on North Korea, including restricting Pyongyang’s petroleum supply.

Indeed any conflict on the divided Korean peninsula evokes a nightmare military scenario where

South Korea’s bustling and prosperous capital remains precipitously close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and a likely onslaught of punishing North Korean artillery barrages. North Korea’s million-man army poses a lethal conventional force and has for a long time; the addition of the nuclear equation ups the strategic ante to a dangerously new level not only for neighboring South Korea, but for Japan, and the U.S. Pacific island of Guam.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned, “The latest nuclear and missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are profoundly destabilizing for regional and international security.  I condemn them unequivocally.”

Antonio Guterres added forcefully, “Yet again, the DPRK has needlessly and recklessly put   millions of people at risk, including its own citizens already suffering drought, hunger and     serious violations of their human rights.”

The Secretary General’s comments came in the wake of an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council following Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test, possibly of a Hydrogen bomb.

American Ambassador Nikki Haley warned, “Enough is Enough.” She presented a lengthy list of UN Security Council resolutions being flaunted, adding, despite the efforts of the past 24 years, Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program was more dangerous than ever before.

Ambassador Haley stated, that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was “begging for war.”

As recently as August, the fifteen member Council unanimously passed a strangling set of     economic sanctions on the rogue communist regime, banning North Korean exports of coal, iron ore, and seafood.

Shortly thereafter Kim Jong-un threatened to blast the U.S. Pacific island of Guam off the map.

South Korea’s Ambassador Cho Tae-yul called on Pyongyang to “choose a path of denuclearization, which was the only option and right way to ensure its survival.”

While the People’s Republic of China has been a longtime ally of the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, unquestionably Beijing is quietly nervous about what their        erstwhile comrades may do to trigger a regional conflict which will no doubt result in the DPRK’s destruction, but more significantly in regional chaos.

Beijing’s Ambassador Liu Jieyi stressed that while the situation on the Peninsula had deteriorated, “China would never allow chaos or war to erupt.” The word chaos represents a red line for PRC policymakers.

Yet, Beijing has been a quiet enabler of Pyongyang’s ambitions. Now that both South Korea and Western countries are pressing for an oil embargo, will Moscow and Beijing seemingly acquiesce to more robust sanctions only to pay the Security Council resolution no heed?

Indeed the role of Russia remains more significant than is generally assumed. Vladimir Putin will certainly punt on limited petroleum sanctions. But Russia, a neighbor of powerful influence, is playing a long-term chess game for geopolitical influence on the Korean peninsula.

Yet, given its nuclear status, the DPRK is more of an independent player than is widely assumed.

While the UN General Assembly session looms where there’s expected to be widespread       condemnation of North Korea’s reckless and destabilizing nuclear moves, and also sustained calls for reinvigorated diplomacy to defuse the crisis.

An equally significant meeting will be held in Beijing in mid-October. The 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China will set the imperial stage and political script for supreme leader Xi Jinping’s continuing rule. The last thing Xi’s strong political image needs would be a loss of a fraternal ally in North Korea, despite the idiosyncrasy of the regime.

The Trump Administration treads the narrow path between war and peace. Shall the expanded   sanctions, backed by Beijing and Moscow, solve the nuclear showdown?

Sweden’s delegate warned that in the midst of the current crisis the potential for “mistakes, misunderstandings and miscalculations was high.” Unquestionably so.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.

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