A US-North Korea war is highly unlikely. What is likely is status quo – vibrating waves of security tensions, sanctions, and South Korea and Japan’s whiny diplomacy to tell on North Korea to the US. As much as the world is entertained by Trump’s loud rhetoric that the US will unilaterally take care of the North Korean problem, the stakes are too high for China, South Korea and Japan to allow US attack on North Korea. Perhaps the only agenda common to China, South Korea and Japan right now on this matter is that none of them wants a war in the region.
When it comes to North Korea, we’re talking about a regime that:
- thrives on the nation’s fear of the regime;
- is not accountable to the nation for its actions;
- will not hesitate to starve the nation just to be able to wage a war, if it must;
And yet it is highly unlikely that Kim Jong Un wants to start war with the US. The dictator is brandishing threats against the US and its two Asian allies in the region to likely seek the least compromised peace treaty with the US. The regime would not see itself gaining in a peace negotiation unless it can project formidable military capability. Sustaining the regime is undoubtedly Kim’s biggest priority and going into a war with the US is his least likely option.
The US unilateral strikes on North Korea will likely anger Japan and South Korea more than China as the two Asian countries will have to bear the brunt of a North Korean retaliation. The safety of South Koreans and Japanese are as important as that of the US, not to mention that there are 29,000 and 50,000 US troops in South Korea and Japan respectively. Besides, North Korea has massed artillery and missile capability adjacent to the demilitarized zone, close to South Korea. It has been estimated that in this scenario alone, North Korea could potentially cause 100,000 casualties in South Korea.
China, on the other hand, has remained ambivalent whether or not it will defend North Korea in the event of a military conflict. According to the 1961 Sino North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, China is obliged to intervene against unprovoked aggression toward North Korea. But the Asian superpower has its own priorities in the region and can likely adopt other means to stop the supposed war between the US and North Korea. China’s support to North Korea dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953). Since then, China has provided political and economic backing to the North Korean regimes. But relations between the two countries have strained over the years since North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons. Beijing has also supported sanctions from UN Security Council Resolutions and implemented new trade sanctions including reduced energy supplies to North Korea and has called for denuclearization talks. But China is also known to have stopped international punitive action against North Korea over human rights violations. China’s support to North Korea ensures a buffer between China and democratic South Korea, home to around 29,000 US troops and marines. Also, the apprehension of hundred of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China in the event of an unstable North Korea is a huge concern for Beijing. It is highly likely that China will want North Korea’s stability, which, otherwise, will jeopardize China’s strategic buffer and bring US troops too close for comfort.
While Trump has been urging China to do more to confront North Korea, the US has also sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the region, heightening concerns in China. China is worried that North Korea’s test of military hardware could provoke a strong response from Washington. Amidst the tension, China has sought Russia’s help to cool tensions over North Korea. Russia has also warned North Korea that Kim’s threats to deliver preemptive nuclear strikes could create a legal ground for the use of military force against the country.
There is a realistic possibility that the US does not know exactly what North Korean nuclear capability is as Kim’s threats have rapidly escalated US concerns. But the US ought to know that North Korea’s military capability is sufficient to annihilate millions in South Korea and Japan, should a war break out between the US and North Korea. That North Korea will be smashed in retaliation cannot be a consolation or measure of success in this war.
The US has pushed North Korea to irreversibly give up its nuclear weapons program in return for aid and diplomatic benefits. Washington believes in using pressure to influence North Korea to change its behavior. But the only likely power to influence North Korea is China. Pressing China to force North Korea to give up its nuclear arms is, however, ineffective, rather pushing China to make sure that North Korea does not use them is a reasonable way forward. It is almost certain that Beijing will actively seek to stop a supposed US strike on North Korea. This could be through attempts to force North Korea to negotiate. If that fails and a war is imminent, China is likely to deploy troops on the line in North Korea to dissuade the US from striking. It’s the same strategy that the US adopts as it stations troops in South Korea and Poland. The Chinese forces in North Korea would then also be in a position to force a coup and install an alternative government to the Kim regime, which ensures that North Korea survives and Chinese priorities in the region are served.
The lynchpin of this assessment is that Kim Jong Un is a rational actor in this matter. It is likely that he will not lose sight of his need to sustain his regime. With that in perspective, tensions will still prevail but the likelihood of a war in the region is remote.
Japan and Russia have never signed a peace treaty since WW2; Is history reigniting a geopolitical contention?December 16, 2016 in Russia
Anxiety hovers over Japanese leadership as Russia has moved anti-ship missiles to the disputed Kuril Islands in the Pacific in November 2016. These missiles provide effective protection from landing operations and carrier-based aircraft strikes. The Russian move comes oddly at a time when the Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Japan later this month. Perhaps a retrospect in history and analysis of contemporary geopolitics will help understand better the contention between the two countries.
What is the dispute over Kuril Islands?
Under the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda between Russia and Japan, the islands of Iturup, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai had belonged to Japan. Post WW2, these islands became parts of the-then Soviet Union, although Japan never recognized the Soviet authority over the islands. In the 1956 Treaty of Peace with Japan, there was a commitment to transfer two southern Kuril Islands to Japan, which was also not executed because it was not clear what conditions were essential for the transfer and who bore sovereignty over the islands. Thus the two countries never signed a peace treaty.
Why are the Kuril Islands important?
The Russian annexure of Kuril Islands post WW2 had made Japan feel vulnerable about its northern mainland. Japan feared that the Soviet empire would expand and invade Japan’s north. As a result, Japan emphasized its military presence in Hokkaido, although the fear of a potential invasion had subsided since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Recent developments in the islands have, however, reignited this contention between Japan and Russia that warrant looking into why these islands are important to the two countries.
Japan’s strategic interest in the islands is because they are rich with natural resources, which is vital to a resource-starved Japan. Historically, to the people of Hokkaido, the idea of Japanese hold of the islands is a matter of honor.
Russia’s strategic interests in the islands include:
- Russian Navy’s safe access through the Sea of Okhotsk to the Pacific;
- Russian military’s presence to strengthen its involvement in East Asian affairs;
- The islands and its territorial waters are rich with minerals including offshore hydrocarbon deposits, gold, silver, iron, titanium and rhenium;
- The islands are able to supply geothermal energy to meet Russian’s annual heating needs;
What have been the latest developments on this dispute?
Russia’s military developments in the islands have appeared at a time when Japan has been moving its focus to the south to deal with China’s maritime expansion. In the hope that the two countries could come to terms about the dispute, Japan is keen on incentivizing Russia with economic relations particularly when sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, low oil price and high inflation have been taking its toll on the Russia economy. Given the strategic interests in the islands, the gains for Russia from economic relations with Japan, however, seem too inadequate to give up the islands. Also in September this year, when asked if Russia is ready to consider giving up one of Kuril Islands to reciprocate for a greater economic cooperation with Japan, Putin said, “We do not trade territories”.
What’s in it for the West?
The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent trip to the U.S. to visit Pearl Harbor is perhaps a testament to the strengthening relations between the U.S. and Japan today. Abe is the first Japanese premier to visit Pearl Harbor. It is hard to infer if this gesture is manifested as an ally subtly seeking the U.S. intervention in Kuril dispute. Russia’s increasing militarization in the Pacific and Japan’s continued support of the Western sanctions against Russia are, however, likely to generate U.S. interest on this matter, although the U.S. president elect Donald Trump, during his election campaign, have threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Japan.
So, where does it leave Japan and Russia now?
The Russian President Vladimir Putin is due in Japan later this month. While the visit is intended toward discussing economic ties and signing a peace treaty, Russia’s firm stance so far on the territorial dispute will most likely sustain. However, some minor economic deals between the two countries are likely.
World leaders on Friday reacted with anger after North Korea carried out its fifth, and reportedly biggest, nuclear test.
The latest test was announced on state TV after a 5.3 magnitude tremor was detected near the Punggye-ri underground nuclear site. Estimates of the explosive yield of the latest blast have varied, with South Korea’s military reporting that it was about 10 kilotonnes, enough to make it the North’s “strongest nuclear test ever.” Other experts have disclosed that initial indications suggest 20 kilotonnes or more. The bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima in 1045 had a yield of about 15 kilotonnes.
In its statement announcing the underground test, North Korea disclosed that it was aimed at further developing the miniaturisation of nuclear warheads so that they could be mounted on ballistic missiles. In its statement, the North disclosed that it could not produce “at will, and as many as it wants, a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power.” While the North ahs previously made claims on “miniaturised” nuclear warheads, they have never been independently confirmed. North Korea also expressed anger at the “racket of threat and sanctions…kicked up by the US-led hostile forces” to deny a “sovereign state’s exercise of the right to self-defense.” The country has also been angered by a US and South Korean plan to install an anti-missile defense system in the South and by the allies’ massive annual joint military exercises, which are still taking place. The test comes on the country’s National Day, which celebrates the founding of the current regime and which is often used in order to show its military strength.
Shortly after the confirmation of the nuclear test, South Korea accused North Korean leader Kim Jong-un of “maniacal recklessness,” adding that “such provocation will further accelerate its path to self-destruction.” China also “firmly opposed” the test, while Japan “protested adamantly,” adding that North Korea is an “outlaw nation in the neighbourhood.” Russia disclosed in a statement “we insist that the North Korean side stop its dangerous escapades and unconditionally implement all resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile the United States warned of “serious consequences,” including “new sanctions,” with President Barack Obama stating that he had agreed with South Korea and Japan to work with the UN Security Council “to vigorously implement existing measures imposed in previous resolutions, and to take additional significant steps, including new sanctions.” The United Nations Security Council is due to meet later behind closed doors in order to discuss the issue. Such nuclear tests are banned by the UN, however this is Pyongyang’s second test in 2016.
Since its first test in 2006, the isolated communist country has been targeted by five sets of UN sanctions. Talks involving world and regional powers have failed to rein in the North’s nuclear programme. In recent months, the North has conducted a series of ballistic missile launches and has in the past often stated that its aim is to hit US targets. The North’s recent actions have tested its relations with its only ally, China. China condemned January’s test and repeated that on Friday after the latest. China’s foreign ministry stated that it would lodge a diplomatic protest and urged North Korea to avoid further action that would worsen the situation. Analysts have also reported that Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric is increasingly becoming aggressive.
On April 27, the United States and Japan released the new set of guidelines for defence cooperation, a document which substantially alters the security relationship between the two countries and lays out a broad framework for the roles their respective militaries will play in international affairs. Above all else, this new iteration of the US-Japan defence guidelines outlines an alliance structure that, while grounded in bilateralism, is unequivocally and ambitiously global. It reflects 1) a deepening appreciation of the threats which confront Japan and the US both regionally and internationally and 2) an awareness of the anachronisms that pervade the existing guidelines. After all, when they were first written in 1978, bipolarity was the defining characteristic of the international system. But when the Berlin Wall fell and multipolarity replaced bipolarity, the assumptions underpinning them became less and less relevant. New challenges had begun to emerge on the Korean Peninsula and over Taiwan, and it became necessary to substantially revise the US-Japan security paradigm. That was in 1997. In the intervening eighteen years, new security challenges have emerged, forcing Japan and the US to go beyond the narrowly defined terms of their existing security agreement. Now, as Japan becomes increasingly involved in peacekeeping missions abroad and as China’s territorial ambitions threaten the balance of power in the region, a new guideline for defence cooperation has emerged. Described by US Secretary of State John Kerry as an, “historic transition in the defines relationship between our two countries”, this document is sure to polarise opinion both domestically and regionally. To understand why, several important changes from the 1997 agreement must be explained.
Under the 1997 guidelines, a “bilateral coordination mechanism” (BCM) was established to ensure that attacks on Japan or a “situation in areas surrounding Japan” (SIASJ) would be met with a coordinated response from the allies. However, security incidents that did not meet this criteria, like the 2011 earthquake, would not. To address this weakness, the BCM has been replaced with the “Alliance Coordination Mechanism” (ACM), which will enable a whole-of-government approach to developing security situations regardless of their exact nature. In essence, the ACM means that Japan will not have to be attacked before the alliance can be invoked.
A further refinement on the 1997 agreement is Japan’s increasingly unrestricted sphere of operations. No longer bound by geographical restrictions, Japan will now take a more prominent role in addressing regional and global security challenges. Specifically, Japan is now able to respond to attacks against countries other than Japan and defend against emerging threats to its security. These two conditions allow for a broad margin of interpretation and could refer to anything from defending against Chinese territorial expansion to protecting Japanese ships from piracy. The guidelines also stipulate a number of other circumstances in which Japan would be prepared to engage in “ [b]ilateral cooperation to promote regional and global activities…to [create] a more stable international security environment.” First, in security dialogues and defence exchanges, second, in peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations and third, in emergency relief operations.
It is evident that Japan, under the leadership of Shinzo Abe and his newly reinterpreted constitution, is getting ready to “go global”. Although the new guidelines have not relaxed so far as to include combat or offensive operations, Japan has made it clear that it is prepared to do much more than simply defend its own borders. Clause Five of the Guidelines makes this point clearly: “As situations in areas surrounding Japan have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security, the Self-Defence Forces will conduct such activities as intelligence gathering, surveillance and minesweeping, to protect lives and property and to ensure navigational safety.”
Taken as a whole, the new guidelines have not significantly altered the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. Japan’s military capabilities will remain more or less unchanged in spite of the latest revisions. What is significant about the agreement – and what has caused so much consternation in Beijing – is Japan’s evident desire to free its self-defence force from the shackles which have bound it for more than half a century. Whether or not a remilitarised, outward looking Japan will act as a deterrent for Chinese expansionism and bring order to a region crippled by instability remains to be seen.
On Wednesday, days ahead of a planned referendum, leaders of the G7 group of nations called on Russia to stop its efforts to “annex” Ukraine’s Crimea region, stating that if Russia takes such a step, they would “take further action, individually and collectively.” The G7 leaders also indicated that they would not recognize the results of a referendum in Crimea, which will be held this weekend, to decide on whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s national security chief has warned of a major Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.
The European Union (EU), along with the Group of Seven (G7) industrial nations, which includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, urged Russia to “cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea.” A statement released by the White House indicated, “in addition to its impact on the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea could have grave implications for the legal order that protects unity and sovereignty of all states.” According to officials in the US, Sunday’s referendum has “no legal effect” as it is in “direct violation” of Ukraine’s constitution. Officials added “given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force.”
The G7 leaders have repeated their calls for Russia to de-escalate the crisis by withdrawing its troops from Crimea, to talk directly with Kiev and to use international mediators in order to “address any legitimate concerns it may have.” Meanwhile European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso indicated that he hoped EU countries would keep their “very united and firm position because we don’t want to see, one century after the First World War, exactly the same kind of behaviour of countries annexing other countries.”
Other European leaders have also weighed in on the on going crisis. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has stated that it may be time for the EU “to consider the possibility of having second phase sanctions” against Russia. During a joint news conference with Mr Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that the EU could sign the “political part” of a long-awaited agreement on closer ties with Ukraine later this month. In a further public indication of Western support for Ukraine’s new leadership, US President Barack Obama is set to meet with interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk later in Washington.
Despite the looming referendum, diplomatic efforts with Russia are continuing. US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that he will travel to London to hold talks with Minister Sergei Lavron on Friday. According to the Kerry, he will present him “with a series of options” for resolving the crisis. France’s President Francois Hollande has also spoken by telephone with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, indicating that both agreed to “continue the discussion” on resolving the crisis. Despite Russia indicating that it may want to continue diplomatic discussions with the West, troop movements in Crimea demonstrate the Russia is unlikely to back down despite threats of sanctions.
Ukraine’s national security chief Andriy Parubiy indicated Wednesday that Moscow had not withdrawn its troops after carrying out military exercises near Ukraine’s eastern and southern frontiers last month. He further noted that the Russian army “is only two to three hours” from Kiev, adding that Ukraine’s “units are positioned to repel attacks from any direction.” Sources have indicated that Russian troops have been seen massing on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, with Ukrainian officials describing the situation as “critical.” He has accused Moscow of sending “subversive agents” into those areas to try to create a pre-text to deploy troops in the same way it has done in Crimea. Mr Parubiy has also indicated that Kiev’s parliament will vote on Thursday to establish a National Guard of 20,000 people, recruited from activists involved in the recent pro-Western protests as well as former military academies, in order to strengthen Ukraine’s defences. He indicated that the National Guard would be deployed to “protect state borders, general security and prevent ‘terrorist activities.’”
- 21 November 2013 – President Victor Yanukovych abandons deal on closer ties with the EU in favour of closer co-operation with Russia
- December 2013 – Pro-EU protesters occupy Kiev city hall and Independence Square.
- 20 February 2014 – At least 88 people are killed in 48 hours of bloodshed in Kiev.
- 21 February 2014 – President Yanukovych signs compromise deal with opposition leaders.
- 22 February 2014 – President Yanukovych flees Kiev. Parliament votes to remove him and sets presidential elections for 25 May.
- 27 – 28 February 2014 – Pro-Russian gunmen seize key buildings in Crimean capital Simeferopol
- 1 March 2014 – Russian parliament approves President Vladimir Putin’s request to use Russian forces in Ukraine.
- 6 March 2014 – Crimea’s parliament asks to join Russia and sets a referendum for 16 March.