Why The Standoff With North Korea Affects The Middle East
Washington’s next move will be watched closely in Tehran
In one of its most serious provocations in years, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan, in the process evidencing its growing capacity to potentially strike the U.S. mainland. South Korean officials confirmed the missile traveled some 2,700 kilometers and reached an altitude of 550 kilometers over the island of Hokkaido, before crash-landing in the ocean off the Japanese coast. The projectile did not approach the American naval base located in Guam, which Pyongyang publicly designated as a military target earlier this month amid a war-of-words with U.S. President Donald Trump, who in the event threatened to unleash on the North “fire and fury the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
According to Dr. James Edward Hoare, the first-ever British representative in North Korea, the immediate chances of a major confrontation is highly unlikely. “North Korea is merely showing determination in the face of what it views as aggression on the other side,” he explained to The Media Line, “in particular, over the last few years, out of concern for the joint military exercises between South Korea and Washington.
“But [U.S. Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson and some American military people have been pulling Trump back from the harsh rhetoric and there is still a possibility to negotiate.”
Dr. Hoare, currently an Associate Fellow at the London-based Chatham House, believes that the North’s nuclear program is a “survival weapon vis-a-vis the U.S.” that also acts as a symbol of a modern powerful state. “While it does not pose a significant direct threat to the U.S., it does to Seoul and Japan. And in both places you have many American troops and civilians. Therefore, when Trump talks tough, he faces the same problem as his predecessors; namely, the cost of a conflict would be so great that it almost cannot be contemplated.”
In the result, Dr. Hoare contends that some kind of détente will likely be reached and argues that previous agreements with Pyongyang were at least partially respected. “Besides all sorts of problems and major incidents the armistice agreement, for example, which ended the 1953 war, has stood. And the North has in the past showed an ability to uphold its end of the bargain.”
Nevertheless, he concluded, “it will not be possible to get the North Koreans to roll back their entire program.” Pyongyang will therefore likely continue to feel the pressure and could choose to lash out not through military means but, rather, by sharing its nuclear know-how with other nations.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that two North Korean shipments to Syria purportedly containing chemical weapons, or their precursors, were intercepted over the past six months. A UN panel is thus currently “investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK (North Korea).”
In fact, Pyongyang’s fingerprints are on many other conventional military and nuclear programs, especially in the Middle East. Since the 1970s, North Korea and Pakistan—another nuclear-armed state—have cooperated extensively on the development of ballistic missile and atomic technologies. AQ Khan, a prominent Pakistani nuclear scientist is known to have assisted the North, which, in turn, has shared trade secrets with Libya, Syria and Iran, thereby creating a sort of atomic nexus of rogue states.
“Formerly, the primary threat to the Middle East was through the transfer of nuclear technologies,” according to Avner Golov, a Research Fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “But now Iran has its own atomic infrastructure and the facility that Pyongyang helped build in Syria was destroyed [allegedly by Israel in 2007].” As per Libya, it gave up its nuclear program while Moammar Qaddafi was still alive and in power.
“Today, the more urgent issue is cooperation on ballistic missiles,” Golov stressed to The Media Line, “as well as the sharing of technology to shrink nuclear warheads [so that they may be delivered by missile].”
On a macro level, he explained further, “the current tensions with Pyongyang deflect U.S. resources away from the Middle East, and there is also less attention being paid towards Iran.”
In this respect, nobody is watching the unfolding events in the far-east more closely than the Mullahs in Tehran. Analysts say that the U.S.’ unwillingness to confront North Korean aggression militarily could embolden the Islamic Republic to cross the nuclear threshold, irrespective of opposition by the world’s lone superpower.
“While the Iranians understand that theirs is a different position,” Golov concluded, “as North Korea is already a nuclear state and has a Chinese patron, they are nonetheless definitely looking to see if Trump can also walk the walk.”
Most observers agree that former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush instead stumbled on the issue. For his part, on October 18, 1994, Clinton affirmed: “Today, after 16 months of intense and difficult negotiations with North Korea, we have completed an agreement that will make the United States, the Korean Peninsula, and the world safer. Under the agreement, North Korea has agreed to freeze its existing nuclear program and to accept international inspection of all existing facilities.”
The ramifications of any conflict with Pyongyang would indeed be catastrophic, which makes understandable initial efforts to solve the issue diplomatically. However, decades of broken commitments have since been repeatedly punished with “crippling” sanctions followed by fruitless talks with world powers—a cycle that has had little effect on reining in the North while, conversely, contributing to global nuclear proliferation.
Despite this failure, then-U.S. president Barack Obama took a similar approach to the Iranian nuclear threat, asserting on July 14, 2015: “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not—a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change—change that makes our country, and the world, safer and more secure.”
Whether the past will repeat itself in the case of the Islamic Republic, Father Time will be the ultimate judge. In the interim, another of history’s tough lessons might be considered; namely, that attempts to avoid war at any cost can, by contrast, eventually lead to conflicts far more costly in terms of both blood and treasure.