By Alexei Fenenko
ValdaiClub.com interview with Alexei Fenenko, Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences
What, in your opinion, the most likely scenario for the situation on the Korean Peninsula?
The situation on the Korean peninsula has been tense for the past 20 years. During this period, Korea has already experienced three nuclear scares – in 1994, 2003 and 2009 – when both the regional war scenario and that of pre-emptive U.S. strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities were seriously considered.
From my point of view, the greatest danger in the Korean crisis lays in the fact that continued tension benefits all key regional players. First of all, it is favorable for North Korea itself, which uses it as a tool to exert leverage on other countries, mainly the United States, while demanding economic aid and security guarantees from the international community. Secondly, it is beneficial for the United States, which on the one hand, is seeking to establish a forced disarmament plan for the “illegal nuclear state”, and on the other, to implement a major commercial project: the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which the Americans sought to replace North Korea’s heavy water reactors with light water ones. Japan also benefits from this strained state of affairs. It is exploiting the tension to push for the re-signing of the United States-Japan 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And it is certainly beneficial for China, as it can use the North Korean crisis to demonstrate that without China, there will be little chance of resolving the region’s major problems.
The current crisis reveals yet another negative trend: North Korea no longer takes American security guarantees seriously. The United States is bound by a set of obligations to protect its two allies – Japan and South Korea; therefore, it is conventionally accepted that the United States would initiate the conflict. Now that the Obama administration has shown that, unlike the previous Republican administration, it does not necessarily take so robust stance on defending its allies, North Korea has begun to “vet” the United States to see if, under certain circumstances, they would be prepared to abandon their allies in the Pacific, especially since the United States already has serious ongoing commitments to two theaters of conflict: Iraq and Afghanistan.
Besides the threat from North Korea, the United States is considering the possibility of China being a threat. According to the sensational article by James Kraska (Commander James Kraska, JAGC, U.S. Navy, Howard S. Levie Chair of Operational Law at the U.S. Naval War College and Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute), it turns out that the United States has not a single response scenario should China, for example, go as far as sink a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.
An interesting scenario has developed under these circumstances. It is obvious that the United States will seek to maintain its military presence in Japan and South Korea to the very last, but they might simultaneously promote the military independence of these countries.
This primarily concerns Japan, a country in possession both of the full nuclear fuel cycle and a large navy. There is no excluding the possibility that, in the near future, the Obama administration could attempt to transfer a fuller array of military obligations to Tokyo. This may be backed up by the Naoto Kan government's desire to enhance Tokyo's military autonomy. Previously, prominent former politicians in Japan, such as the former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, repeatedly raised the possibility of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, given certain conditions.
At the same time, strengthening U.S. allies could lead to further aggravation of the situation across the region, because it could pose a threat to Russia. If a resurgent Japan suddenly demonstratively tries to occupy the Kuril Islands, does Russia have an immediate, flexible response apart from the unlikely nuclear scenario? Combat scenarios for instance such as this have been developed over the past 20 years, but always anticipated Japan to be weak. It remains unclear what Russia’s reaction would be to a strong Japan, perhaps one that were to start building a fleet in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan.
Consequently, all these factors help fuel tensions across the region and increase the likelihood of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula. Most likely, it will not happen this time, but in the long run, such a conflict is possible, and we ought to consider that possibility.
In this case, does it make sense to examine the North Korean nuclear issue within the context of the Six-Party Talks?
Of course it does. The mechanism of the Six-Party Talks has so far turned out to be quite effective – it prevented the United States from launching military operations against North Korea.
The Six-Party Talks were established in 2003, during the second nuclear threat, to prevent an American preventive strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities. Then the “non-formal coalition” comprising Russia, China and South Korea persuaded the United States of the necessity to keep dialogue with the North Korean regime. And until recently, it did. Therefore, in terms of preventing war, the Six-Party Talks were effective.
But the situation has now begun to change – now North Korea itself is vetting the “resilience” of the U.S. position and perhaps it is a lever to persuade the United States to sign a new version of the 1994 framework agreement. But the question is how the United States will behave: will they increase their pressure on North Korea, or demonstrate their willingness to sign an agreement with North Korea (even though it will in effect act as a security guarantee for the current regime in Pyongyang), or the U.S. will shift the responsibility onto the shoulders of its allies.
Consequently, here and now, we're at a “crossroad” and the next meeting of the Six-Party Talks will show which of these scenarios will be chosen.
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