The last month has witnessed several pro-active efforts on the part of the Trump administration in carrying out unilateral action in different conflict-ridden areas in Syria and Afghanistan.
First was the US decision to bomb a Syrian airport with cruise missiles. After that came the bombing of an IS cave hideout in Afghanistan with the most powerful bomb used in any conflict situation since the Second World War.
Commander flip flop
Analysts have pointed out that these actions indicated that Trump is turning his own page and is prepared to take action based on his administration’s interpretation of what is consistent with international law.
That also, according to most, means that future actions might be more unpredictable than before, which is worrisome.
The situation has acquired a dangerous trend because of the evolving situation in the Far East where unilateral violation of international obligations by the North Korean regime is creating tension within the Korean Peninsula as well as within the adjoining territories that includes Japan.
The latest scenario was initiated with the test of a North Korean missile as part of their weapon’s program ahead of an important meeting and formal dinner on April 6 between the leaders of the United States and China in Florida.
The erratic North Korean President Kim Jong Un, through this action, was showing that, despite outside pressure and strictures placed on North Korea, they were still capable of carrying out their weapons programs.
It is generally agreed that Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping might have a number of resons to disagree on different issues, but none is more volatile or potentially deadly as that of North Korea’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear and missile expertise.
Since last year, Kim Jong Un has tested more missiles than his father and grandfather combined, while making continued progress toward an ICBM capable of targetting nearly the entire continental US.
Smoke and mirrors
Pyongyang has also claimed that they have been able to miniaturise nuclear warheads for use on missiles.
Experts have however, cast doubt on this claim given the lack of any palpable evidence.
This evolving situation has gained greater attention from international observers because of the recent visit to the Republic of Korea on April 17 by US Vice President Mike Pence, who took the opportunity to highlight growing US impatience with the North Korean leadership.
His comments tend to reflect that the era of “strategic patience” on the part of the US with regard to North Korea appears to be coming to an end.
As it stands now, the US appears to have taken a dual approach towards this issue.
On one side it is leaning on China, North Korea’s principal ally, to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang to curtail its nuclear ambitions.
Trump is also trying to sweeten the pot by discreetly offering China better trade terms if the Asian powerhouse takes steps to put North Korea’s provocative behaviour to rest.
It may be noted that China accounts for 80% of North Korea’s foreign trade and has significant political leverage over North Korea.
At the same time, the US has decided to increase its military footprint in the region through the deployment of a naval carrier strike group in the waters off the Korean Peninsula.
The greatest worry among US allies appears to be the possibility of Trump pursuing a military option
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol has reacted by asserting that the present dangerous security situation was due to “Trump administration’s reckless military provocations,” and also warned that North Korea “will react with nuclear strike” and continue testing new missiles.
This response has been interpreted by many security analysts as playing to the gallery.
China has been cautious till now about its response though some of its analysts have been suggesting that the the US needs to adopt a different approach.
Beijing is also indirectly suggesting that North Korea might be persuaded to freeze its nuclear program if, in exchange, the US halts its military exercises with South Korea.
China’s “proposal is practical, feasible, reasonable, objective and unbiased,” a Chinese spokesman has told the CNN in this regard. “We hope all parties can be level-headed.”
In the meantime, as of April 17, China, according to its State broadcaster CCTV has suspended its Beijing- Pyongyang direct flight. Earlier in February, China had announced that it was halting all imports of coal from North Korea -- a crucial earner for North Korea -- for the rest of this year. These are being seen as indirect use of influence.
A failure to communicate
Some US lawmakers and experts have also endorsed the idea of direct talks. Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has urged Trump to start direct talks with Kim Jong Un in exchange for a Chinese commitment to drastically escalate sanctions against Pyongyang if it fails to negotiate in good faith.
Some other observers have also endorsed this approach and pointed out that direct communication is crucial if there’s a crisis.
The greatest worry among US allies appears to be the possibility of Trump pursuing a military option.
They are worried that in that case, there would be extensive damage not only within South Korea but also a humanitarian crisis in North Koreas itself, with millions of affected and impoverished North Koreans streaming across the border to war-affected South Korea.
This would create serious instability within a region already affected by competing geo-strategic paradigms related to the use of maritime potential of the region.
They are also pointing out that the world is already having to deal with crisis in North Africa, the Middle East, in Afghanistan, and the India-Pakistan border. Then there is the unresolved migrant issue affecting Europe.
They are also drawing attention to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s latest warning towards the US asking it not to launch any unilateral strike on North Korea.
Russia, in this regard has stressed that “we do not accept the reckless nuclear missile actions of Pyongang that breaches UN resolutions, but that does not mean that [the US] can breach international law.”
One can only hope that the relevant parties will exercise caution and not end up creating a chaotic disaster within the Far East and the adjoining region that might have been avoided.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]