| By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd.)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
As North Korea carried out another ballistic missile test, shortly after President Moon Jae-in took office in South Korea, US President Donald Trump called for "stronger sanctions" against North Korea, while China is urged restraint. A series of North Korean missile tests this year, which are banned by the UN, sparked international alarm and raised tensions with the US. The US Pacific Command said in a statement the type was being assessed but that its flight was not consistent with that of an ICBM, which would have the range to reach the US mainland (more than 6,000km). North Korea is believed to be developing two types of ICBM, but neither has so far been flight tested. Kim Jong-un has been threatening to strike the US and US assets in the region including the US base in Guam in Western Pacific which is 3,400 kms from Pyongyang. Later, Choe Son Hui, North Korean DG for US Affairs stated that Pyongyang would have dialogue with the US administration ‘if conditions were right’.
It may be recalled that Trump had warned in April that a “major, major, conflict” with North Korea was possible, but that he would prefer a diplomatic outcome to the dispute, North Korea having conducted five nuclear tests in defiance of UN and US sanctions, preparing for a sixth one, developing long-range missiles, and threatening to attack the US. Subsequently, Trump threw a surprise saying he would be “honoured” to meet Kim Jong-un, North Korean President. Significantly, at his confirmation hearing in January 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said that the Trump administration might take a more aggressive approach to the South China Sea, saying, “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. It’s taking of territory that others lay claim to”.
He had even hinted that Chinese access to the artificial islands could be restricted by US vessels. Apparently, the most successful Chinese perception building campaign has been making the US believe China is the solution, not the problem to the North Korean crisis. It is actually quite surprising how US has believed this considering China is behind the economy of North Korea and massive military and nuclear investments being indulged in by Kim Jong-un. Not only many Chinese companies are in North Korea, China has established a special economic zone (SEZ) bang on its border with North Korea. What the US needs to closely examine is how has North Korea despite US and UN sanctions over so many years managed to maintain formidable armed forces, enormous expenditure in defence and even winning medals in Olympics; compare it to Cuba which was also under sanctions for decades.
What should be abundantly clear is that North Korea is a nuclear talon of the Chinese dragon. The book ‘The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation’ by Thomas Reed, former US Air Force Secretary who himself designed two nuclear devices. The book describes how China intentionally proliferated nuclear technology to risky regimes; particularly Pakistan. More significantly, Reed explained to US News that China under Deng Xiaoping, decided to proliferate nuclear technology to communists and Muslims in the third world based on the strategy that if the West started getting nuked by Muslim terrorists or another communist country without Chinese fingerprints, it would be good for China. That is how North Korea and Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons – both talon of the dragon. What reinforced Chinese lies is that while China raised a host of objections to exposures in Reed’s book, all were withdrawn subsequent to discussion with Chinese scientists.
The question now is what beyond? The US recently deployed the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group to the western Pacific, some 400 nautical miles east of China's Hainan Island and northeast of the Parcels, although the last freedom of navigation operation (FONOPS) by US Navy made public was in October 2016, four months before Trump took power. Earlier FONOPS in SCS were regularly authorized by the Obama administration albeit with US naval vessels not sailing closer than 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands – not even flying aircraft or helicopter closer than this. China has been describing these US FONOPS serious breaches of law and intentional provocation. Further, US has deployed the THADD anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea, much to the discomfort of China. China and ASEAN have reportedly arrived at a code of conduct at sea. But China can be expected to goad North Korea to up the ante on the US and allies. It is normal for China to keep raising the level of tolerance of the adversary. The US has said that it will take up the incident of Chinese fighter intercepting a US aircraft over East China Sea on May 19 at the diplomatic level. But how US handles future Chinese and China-sponsored North Korean provocations will be watched with interest.