North Korean Nuclear Crisis and India

Recently North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, which it said was an advanced hydrogen bomb for a long-range missile, marking a dramatic escalation of the regime’s standoff with the United States and its allies.

Objectives on North Korea’s Nuclear Tests:

1. The nuclear capability is primarily meant to ensure the survival of the regime: Kim Jong-un after seeing the outcome of western interventions in Libya and Iraq and Russian intervention in Ukraine, is convinced that he needs a nuclear deterrent for regime survival. In addition, he wants direct talks with the U.S. that will provide him recognition and lessen his dependence on China, and finally, an easing of sanctions. Kim Jong-un may also be playing a high-stakes diplomatic game for an Iran-like deal where he could swap his country’s nuclear arsenal for international recognition and economic partnership.

2. It wants to break the US’ alliance with South Korea and Japan: The ICBM capability is a credible tool to “decouple” the US from its allies. South Korea and Japan have every reason to doubt whether the US would risk its major cities in order to come to their rescue against North Korea.

3. North Korea, like the South, desires the reunification of the Korean peninsula but on its own terms.

A result of failure of nuclear diplomacy

1. Economic Sanctions have limited utility because China accounts for 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade and for China, a nuclear North Korea is a lesser threat than a regime collapse that could lead to a unified Korea allied to the U.S.

2. Sanctions work only in a country where the rulers are responsive to their people through some political process, not in a totalitarian regime whose primary goal is its own survival.

Implications for India

1. For India, the most immediate concern will be any possible diminution of the US role in Asia, which is crucial to meeting the China challenge.

2. Both the eventuality of a North Korean-induced decoupling and the more distant prospect of South Korea and Japan developing their own nuclear weapons have the potential to significantly alter the security role that the US plays in the region.

3. Given the history of proliferation networks, some Indian analysts are also concerned about advanced nuclear technology finding its way from North Korea to Pakistan.

India’s Response

India has condemned N. Korea’s actions. India has aligned with UN by banning all trade with N. Korea with the exception of shipments of food and medicine. India was North Korea’s third largest trade partner in 2015-16, thus the implications on N. Korea can be:

1. Impact on Trade: This decision brought an abrupt end to a decade of growth in India-North Korea trade links. Due to loss of trade, N. Korea will face an already acute hard currency shortage. Loss of trade with India will force the country towards more dependence on China, especially when the ties between the two are not as cordial.

2. Collapse of Technology sharing links: The Center for Space Science and Technology in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP), India, was one of the few institutes in the world that provided technical training for North Korean students after the UN issued its first set of sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear program in 2006.

Measures to Resolve Crisis

The old objectives of ‘de-nuclearization’ and ‘reunification’ have to be set aside. North Korea’s nuclear capability will have to be accepted, at least for the foreseeable future.

1. A military solution to the North Korean issue is even more difficult and risky as Mr. Kim could use the country’s nuclear arsenal in retaliation. Military action may lead to nuclearization in Japan and South Korea.

2. The more honourable option for the US then is to accept mutual vulnerability, resume dialogue with North Korea and examine which of the latter’s demands can be conceded without significantly affecting the US presence in South Korea and Japan.

3. Role of China: The only country that could reason with North Korea and persuade it to join back talks is China. China has the historical responsibility to lead the efforts to solve the crisis on the Korean peninsula, much like what the Russians did in securing the Iran deal.

4. International Actions: International community needs to come up with various programmes to solve the increasing threat of nuclearization. For example, recently International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has opened a uranium bank for Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) in Oskemen city of Kazakhstan to discourage new nations from enriching the nuclear fuel.

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