Saro Thiruppathy assesses the possible responses by the US to the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang

North Korea’s growing nuclear threat cast an ominous shadow over US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to the Asia-Pacific region covering Japan, South Korea (at risk from North Korea) and China (an influential ally of the Hermit Kingdom).

In February, the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Washington was marked by North Korea launching a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. Notwithstanding universal condemnation, Pyongyang also tested its nuclear strike capability in March in apparent retaliation to the joint military exercises by South Korea and the United States.

“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended. We are exploring a new range of security and diplomatic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson told a news conference in Seoul, adding that “if they (Pyongyang) elevate the threat of their weapons programme to a level that we believe requires action, then that option is on the table.”

Tillerson’s strong words of condemnation are in stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s lukewarm reaction.

While he barely mentioned North Korea by name when briefing the press on the first incident, Trump was more forthcoming a month later when he told reporters on board Air Force One that North Korea was “acting very, very badly.” That same day, Trump tweeted: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!” This difference in tone between the two men implies a serious disconnect between the US president and his top diplomat on the nuclear threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and in expressing a suitable response to its leader Kim Jong-un.

But in a sudden declaration on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US in April, in true Trump style, the US president declared unilateral action against Pyongyang if China does not handle Kim Jong-un’s provocative actions.

During President Barack Obama’s administration, the US had approved the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, which is now underway.

Meanwhile, analysts in the US and elsewhere are looking at a scenario that would act out Tillerson’s threat, weighing the pros and cons of military action against North Korea. There seems to be very little that can be done – bellowing strong words and posturing is insufficient because the situation is extremely complex and retaliation is not really an option due to the many players in the region. And the fallout (both nuclear and others) can cause serious harm to South Korea, which the US has pledged to protect.

It also seems that the time for a pre-emptive strike came to an end when Pyongyang detonated its first nuclear device. To begin with, the US does not know where the North Koreans have hidden sections of their nuclear arsenal. And even if the United States did manage to simultaneously destroy all DPRK’s nuclear weapons, the latter still has thousands of artillery shells pointed at Seoul that could wreak havoc on the South Korean people.

THE CHINA FACTOR China is not amused with Kim Jong-un’s antics and in February, it suspended coal imports from the DPRK. This suspension by an ally is painful to Pyongyang, which conducts close to 90 percent of its trade with China with coal being the main export that analysts claim comprises 35 percent of DPRK’s economy.

Early last year, China signed onto the UN Security Council resolution 2321 that cut off trade with North Korea in coal and other commodities; but the mainland insisted on maintaining a ‘livelihood exemption’ that “allows the export of a product if cutting it off might affect the livelihood of the exporter so long as revenue doesn’t go to North Korea’s nuclear programme.”

This coal loophole lasted three weeks and ended on 31 December 2016.

Although Beijing has traditionally protected Pyongyang diplomatically – believing that Kim Jong-un’s regime is preferable to its collapse – China has grown frustrated by its neighbour’s defiance.

In December, China’s Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei stressed that Beijing continues to oppose unilateral sanctions against North Korea without UN Security Council approval.

China is also displeased over the US deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea on the grounds that it would also be able to track China’s missile systems. AFP reported in March that China had stated it would “resolutely” defend its security interests as Beijing fears THAAD will undermine its own military capabilities.

A foreign ministry spokesman addressing a press briefing maintained: “We are firmly opposed to the deployment of THAAD in the Republic of Korea (ROK) by the US and ROK… China will resolutely take necessary measures to defend our own security interests. All consequences entailed from this will be borne by the US and ROK.”

Pretty strong words, indeed!

According to the Economic Research Institute of the Industrial Bank of Korea, the Chinese government’s economic retaliation that’s underway could cost South Korea between US$ 7.69 billion and 14.76 billion dollars, in the worst-case scenario.

RUSSIAN CONNECTION A Global Times assessment notes that “THAAD poses threats to both China and Russia. Joint work against the system is the new bond of the Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination and will strike a heavy blow to the US.”

For the third year in a row, Kim Jong-un placed Russia at the top of its leading allies with China in second place, indicating that the DPRK was not as enamoured with Beijing as in the past. The Kremlin has reciprocated Kim’s “affections” through many economic deals with the Hermit Kingdom, and cemented its role as Kim Jong-un’s protector along with China – and as a stakeholder in maintaining peace in the Korean peninsula.

In January, Russian railway officials visited Pyongyang to discuss the expansion of rail links between the two nations while the Russians agreed to offer more training opportunities for engineers from the DPRK in Russian universities. This is the first step towards allowing more North Koreans to man the Rajin-Hasan railway project that is being funded by Russia despite South Korea’s withdrawal from the venture.

Though Chinese oil to the DPRK has faced periodic disruptions as a result of tensions between the two countries, Moscow’s intervention as an investor in North Korea’s energy sector has been a lifeline to the administration as Siberian oil is processed in the DPRK and resold to Chinese consumers.

Sceptics don’t believe that Russian influence in the Korean peninsula is all that strong but there are some indications as to why they may be wrong.

For a start, South Korean elections scheduled for 9 May could see the defeat of the right-wing Saenuri party as a result of the Park Geun-hye scandal – Park’s impeachment and subsequent arrest.

In the event of a victory by the left, there is a distinct possibility that relations between Moscow and Seoul will warm once again. There’s also the possibility that the left will seek to adopt a cooperative rather than confrontational relationship with its northern neighbour.

Moreover, several leftist politicians have been critical of the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea and are supporting a more independent foreign policy that is indeed music to the ears of the Kim regime as well as Putin’s.

Apart from the carrot, Russia also has a stick in the form of curbing DPRK asylum seekers. And in the event Kim Jong-un is defiant, it is very likely that the Kremlin would use its border policy to control the irrepressible leader.

Other than China, only Russia has any direct capability to impact the stability of the DPRK. In the event that tensions build up in the peninsula, Moscow can use its good offices (and economic clout) to motivate Kim to pull back. If Russia is able to manage a peaceful peninsula, then the Kremlin’s role as a serious player in the Asia-Pacific region is guaranteed for a very long time.

So it seems that there isn’t any meat to either Trump’s or Tillerson’s threats about unilateral action against the Hermit Kingdom. At most, they may amount to hot air and diplomatic speak, which is about as useless as the US president’s famous tweet that “North Korea is behaving very badly.”

At the time of going to press however, both the US and North Korea were upping the ante with threats and counter threats including a dangerous buildup of military might in and around the Korean peninsula.