It is necessary to open a round of negotiations and it must be done immediately, without waiting for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. The path of negotiations is an uphill road but it’s the only way to overcome the standstill created by Pyongyang’s regime and the tension wittingly designed through constant threats. Antonio Fiori is a Professor at the University of Bologna where he teaches International Politics and Relations of the Asian continent, a major expert in the Korean peninsula. SIR contacted him immediately after North Korea launched a missile over Japan’s island of Hokkaido. It’s the second missile launch over Japan in only three weeks, signalling an ever more aggressive nuclear threat.
Professor, why Japan? First of all because it’s a geographically close Country, within North-Korea’s average missile range couple by a full-blown atavistic hatred that dates back to Japan’s 35-year-long colonization of Korean peninsula, from 1910 to 1945. There is also a geostrategic issue whereby the Japanese are the main historical allies of the United States together with South Korea, thus striking against Japan means posing a threat to the United States.
Pyongyang’s nuclear attack would entail the immediate reaction of the international Community, thereby implying an utter defeat for North Korea, and in the worst case scenario its disappearance from world maps. In your opinion, is Kim Jong-un a crazy person, a manager or a shrewd strategist? I would tend to rule out the first option. If Kim Jong-un were completely deranged he probably would have already hit a target. It’s more likely that his actions fall within a well-designed strategy, far from suicidal intentions.
Could he be a manager who is trying to show that he has state-of-the-art nuclear weapons for the international market? This is more unconvincing. While it’s true that North Koreans exports various types of arms that are normally dismantled and reassembled at a later stage, missiles are not transported to Countries that are on friendly terms with North Korea. Some components are distributed to Middle-Eastern and African countries.
Kim jong-un was quoted as saying to Japan and to the US: “We will reduce you to ashes.” Is it a serious threat? No. Knowing North Korea, it can be said that there is a great amount of propaganda. Guam had been announced to be the target. Obviously the island was not hit, but two missiles were flown over Japan. Tension is raised also in this way, and the latest launch sent various messages: we can hit Japan; we can hit the Andersen air force base in Guam, in US territory; we are conducting a technologically advanced nuclear program that makes us an important player practicing deterrence in the international arena.
Then what’s behind Kim Jong-un’s constant threats?
A veritable strategy of tension
carried out by a Country that has no intention of giving itself away nor of establishing alliances with other Countries that could involve it in waging against the established world order. North Korea is showing the world that it has achieved – or is in the point of achieving – a full-blown situation of nuclear missile capability and it is saying that
it won’t stop until the international community recognizes its status as a nuclear power
It’s a blame game: obviously the international community, and Washington in particular, will never accept Pyongyang’s conditions. If they did, the next step would be that the United States and North Korea would have to confront each other on equal ground.
Who is winning at the moment?
Trump and the international community don’t know which way to turn.
They are aware that an attack – whether a major attack or several surgical strikes – would put the entire Far East in a condition of utter prostration. But they are equally aware that not intervening is congenial to the North Korean regime. Moreover, it can be said that to date the North Korean regime is prevailing, bringing about a widespread standstill situation where it can prolong a tension strategy and advance its nuclear arsenal.
If Trump asked for your advice, what would it be? Clearly, not knowing how to intervene the United States keep various options on the table. But if Trump called me I would tell him that I consider the US position wrong in its basic assumption. The international community is asking North Korea to stop, to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, to comply with the requests of the international community and only after having accepted these conditions to sit around the negotiating table. However, Pyongyang will never accept those conditions because
A North Korea that has been stripped of its deterrence capacities is a canary facing an eagle ready to devour it.
For that reason I think the situation should be reversed, even if it means that the negotiating process starts with the acceptance of a defeat, namely without imposing on North Korea the dismantlement of its nuclear deterrence. Once it is underway the negotiating process would evolve into a gradual, systematic victory. It will take time, but it’s the only way out of the present gridlock.