After years of relative harmony on the Korean peninsula, experts have warned that an alarming new North Korean crisis could be looming in 2021.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ annual Preventive Priorities Survey of foreign policy experts on potential geopolitical risks in the coming year, a fresh emergency in the region was the chief concern.
While North Korea has dropped off the radar recently following three years of tentative peace, Scott A Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on US-Korea policy at CFR, insisted the danger never actually went away.
“President Obama warned president-elect Trump in November 2016 that the most vexing international security threat he would face would emanate from North Korea,” he wrote following the release of the survey.
“Two nuclear tests, myriad long-range missile tests, and three Trump-Kim summits later, the magnitude and likelihood of North Korea posing a catastrophic threat to US national interests is greater than it was four years ago.”
While former president Donald Trump’s historic summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were widely celebrated, they did not alter the unavoidable threat posed by the rogue nation’s nuclear capabilities – and habit of carrying out weapon tests.
And given Kim’s classic move of using nuclear and missile tests to taunt new leaders – which he did to former US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, China’s Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye – many are now bracing for more now that President Joe Biden has been sworn in.
That threat seems all the more likely, given Kim himself declared the US to be North Korea’s “foremost principal enemy” at the Worker’s Party of Korea Eighth Party Congress last month, with the dictator slamming America’s “hostile policy” towards the state.
North Korea’s motivation to potentially destabilise things stems from its long-term animosity towards the US, but also the economic crisis plaguing the country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing sanctions against it and a series of natural disasters which caused widespread damage and suffering.
As a result, the world is facing a perfect storm of circumstances that could culminate in a new North Korean conflict.
‘BREAKOUT OF WAR’
Justin Hastings, a professor in International Relations at the University of Sydney, told news.com.au every weapons test posed a potential risk.
“North Korea has been developing increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons and long-range missiles … and every time they test them it can lead to instability in the region,” he said.
“The US and its allies and the UN impose sanctions but at the same time North Korea behaves very provocatively.
“They staged drills 10 years ago which actually likely sank a South Korean warship … and
every time they test a weapon there’s a potential for the breakout of war as there’s always a chance of miscalculation, or that they will push too far and the US won’t take any more.”
Prof Hastings said America’s “golden rule” when it came to handling North Korea had for decades been to shut down communication with the president, unless the state offered something major in return, such as denuclearisation or de-escalation.
However, that rule was torn up by Donald Trump, who was determined to open up a dialogue with Kim Jong-un.
Following the leaders’ summits, testing and provocation largely stopped – but Prof Hastings said the Biden administration has signalled a return to the previous policy of sanctions in a bid to deter the development of nuclear weapons, which has not worked in the past.
“The way I see it, if the US returns to that policy we will see North Korea continue to develop its missiles,” he said.
He said South Korea’s current President Moon Jae-in was committed to achieving peace between the two nations.
As his term is ending next year, Prof Hastings said he might be willing to make compromises to North Korea in an effort to secure peace and cement his own legacy which the rest of the world may not be satisfied with.
“If South Korea makes peace somehow, the US will have very little leverage to denuclearise North Korea,” he explained.
“Ultimately, North Korea can ignore South Korea, and if South Korea really wants this to happen they might be tempted to make more concessions than would be advisable.”
END OF THE ‘BROMANCE’
Dr Leonid Petrov, a politics and business expert at the International College of Management Sydney and Australian National University who specialises in North Korea, told news.com.au while Kim and Trump had developed a “bromance”, Joe Biden would be a very different leader.
However, he said while their leadership styles might differ, he expected the result would be roughly the same.
“I don’t expect a major change in the status quo under the Biden admin … I believe Biden is a more bureaucratic man who supports and respects institutions rather than an autocratic way of handling a crisis so I think North Korea lost the window of opportunity it had for the past few years,” he said.
“Joe Biden will try to avoid either extremes … Trump was playing a complicated game in relation to North Korea.”
However, he said the situation might “regress” to new experimentations of nuclear devices and rocket technology, depending on North Korea’s “domestic situation”.
KIM’S ‘DAYS ARE NUMBERED’
While the Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea for three generations, Prof Hastings said it was not “unreasonable” to expect the family could be removed from power “in our lifetime”.
“It might take another 40 years, but it is possible, because the reality is North Korea is essentially a monarchy at this point – now we have the third generation of this monarchy … and it is almost unheard of to have passed power down for three generations of the same family,” he said.
“Things are moving too fast within North Korea and outside and it can’t remain the same.
“His days are probably numbered in the long term.”
Prof Hastings said it might take decades, but that he would be surprised if the North Korean people tolerated “another transfer of power within the Kim family”.
“It’s increasingly untenable to say only Kims can lead North Korea, but at the same time, what will it be like without the Kims if they are replaced? It’s all very speculative at this point.”
Meanwhile, Dr Petrov said he believed the Kim family would hold onto power for some time.
“The Kim family are a symbol and token of stability, and the elites in the party, the army and the secret police would prefer if the status quo was maintained,” he said.
Dr Petrov said if Kim died tomorrow, he would likely be replaced by another relative, such as his sister, until his own children were old enough to take over.
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