By M D Nalapat
Kim Jong Un is strengthening clandestine networks in Japan, the United States and South Korea.
Policymakers and analysts across both sides of the Pacific Ocean, who are familiar with and involved in policy formulation in both segments of the Korean peninsula, say that North Korean supremo Kim Jong Un “admires the way a much smaller Pakistan is keeping India on tenterhooks” through GHQ Rawalpindi’s Zia-era “Thousand Cuts” strategy. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi—at that time focused on a peace treaty with Pakistan because of his close relationship with PPP chief and later Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto—declined secret approaches by Israel, which continued up to the initial months of 1989 to jointly carry out a ship and air-based missile strike that would destroy Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure. Till around 2003, it was possible for India to take out Pakistan’s nuclear assets, given that these were not militarily operational until that period, despite hype from Islamabad. However, neither P.V. Narasimha Rao, nor any of his successors had the will to act decisively against GHQ Rawalpindi, until the window of opportunity passed. It was not a coincidence that 1989, the year the Israeli approaches were finally rebuffed, was also when Pakistan sharply accelerated its non-conventional war on India by openly lighting the fires of insurgency in Kashmir and set up terror infrastructure throughout India for future action, soon witnessed in locations such as Mumbai in 1993.
“Pakistan’s trajectory against India has inspired Kim to follow the same path, which is to strengthen clandestine networks in Japan, the United States and South Korea to, in future, launch a ‘thousand cuts’ strategy on the three powers”, of course “once immunity is secured through a credible nuclear deterrent” on the Pakistan model. Unlike his father Kim Jong Il, “who was hesitant to reach out in a systematic manner to Washington, preferring to focus his attention on Seoul”, the younger Kim is “open to a significant increase in contacts with the US, as he is not committed to a traditional state-monopoly model of the economy”. According to those familiar with the thinking within the higher echelons of the Pyongyang leadership, the youthful Kim Jong Un “understands the benefits that Pakistan gained as a consequence of skilful diplomacy towards the US”, in particular, “by gaining the space needed in order to build up nuclear assets to a critical level”.
Further, “as in the case of Pakistan”, the primary sponsor and protector of the North Korean military, China, “ favours a policy of conciliation on the surface, combined with vigorous prosecution of necessary action below eye level”, as was the case between the US and Pakistan throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, those who were close to Rajiv Gandhi, say that an important reason why he did not accept the Israeli offer was that the US frowned on any such action against Pakistan. The other was fear of retaliatory bombing raids on Mumbai and even Delhi, “although these would have been unlikely, given the certainty of retaliation by India on Karachi and Rawalpindi”. Interestingly, these sources add that General Sundarji’s military manoeuvres on the Pakistan border during that period were to ensure combat readiness in the event of an India-Israel strike against Pakistan’s nuclear assets.
THE THINKING IN NORTH KOREA
According to individuals familiar with the thinking of the higher echelons of the North Korean leadership, “if the DPRK is Pakistan, then Japan is India”. In other words, the primary target of a future non-conventional war by a North Korea made immune from significant retaliation by its nuclear weapons capability would be Japan. “The DPRK would show its teeth to South Korea and the US, but not with the intention of biting”, a policymaker across the Pacific shores revealed, adding that “the intention of a display of offensive capability would be to gain concessions” from Seoul and Washington. However, in the case of Japan, Kim “sees himself as the Korean leader, who will perform the historical task of humbling that country” through a ceaseless and escalating campaign of non-conventional warfare that Tokyo would be powerless to directly retaliate against. Such a campaign would be designed to “slow down the Japanese economy and remove any sense of safety and balance in the lives of citizens, especially in Osaka and Tokyo”, two cities where, according to several sources, networks have already been set up that can be made operational at short notice.
However, “should there be war, there will be no limit to the response” of the DPRK towards its foes as “Supreme Leader is aware that this will be a battle to the finish” and therefore “we have nothing to lose” in a context where “the only choice will be to either perish tamely, or after a bitter and deadly struggle”. They add that “Supreme Leader (Kim) is very smart and spends a lot of time in private study, contemplation and in discussions” about the overall situation from his close associates and from scholars, “whom (Kim) treats with great respect”. In particular, “Supreme Leader has studied the recent experience of Iraq, Libya, Syria and even Egypt” and seems to have reached the conclusion that “promises made by western politicians are written on water”. They claim that under the cover of removing WMD, “extensive investigation was done of the vulnerable areas of defences in Iraq and Libya”, information that was subsequently put to use in attacks directed against Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. They have also seen how “help for anti-Assad fighters was increased by several times” after Syrian, i.e., Assad’s WMD stocks were removed “because of the agreement forced by Moscow” on Damascus. Hence, they add, Kim Jong Un will not allow roaming inspections of military facilities as a consequence of any agreement. Only the sites agreed upon and which relate to the nuclear forces under discussion will be made accessible, “after a comprehensive agreement has been reached”. The individuals contacted claim that over the past year, several North Koreans and others suspected of passing on information to enemy forces have been discovered and are being subjected to questioning in facilities set up for the purpose in the northeast of the DPRK.
Given the lessons of Iraq, Libya and Syria, the individuals located on the other side of the Pacific Ocean say that the integration of DPRK’s administrative and military structure within any future unified state is “nonnegotiable”. They add that contrary to the personal views of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, “who was not eager for unification and disliked the ways of the south”, Kim Jong Un has an “open mind on the issue and has no animosity towards the societal construct in the south”. Hence, they claim that the best chance for peaceful unification is the present dispensation in Pyongyang, although “agreement must be based on mutual respect, rights and benefits”. Also, that any intra-Korean talks towards such an outcome “must follow an agreement (of Pyongyang) with the US that protects the personnel” of the DPRK administration from future retaliation of the kind that took place in Iraq and Libya and which is now being pursued by the US and its allies in Syria.
However, absent any “honourable and co-equal” peace agreement, the DPRK will seek to develop its nuclear and missile technologies to a stage when “these can be used with deathly (sic) effect on cities in Japan, the south and the US west coast”. That would, in their view, strengthen the position of North Korea in any future negotiations. According to those familiar with the workings of the ruling group in the DPRK, “the military wants to, in all situations, go ahead with the nuclear program” as the army’s belief is that “the US is not interested in serious negotiations, but in putting the tiger (North Korea) to sleep by honeyed words before killing it”. However, the same sources add that Kim Jong Un believes that President Trump will keep his part of any deal made “as he is a businessman and not a politician”. According to the policymakers spoken to, “the aim of the DPRK leadership is to work towards a summit meeting (between Kim and Trump) that would result in a breakthrough in the negotiations. Only “intervention at this level would create the confidence within Supreme Leader’s high state council that would enable confidently to make the concessions required for honourable peace”. According to the individuals spoken to, Supreme Leader Kim has spent “much time going through speeches and events featuring President Trump” and has “developed respect for President Trump’s honest talk and unwavering focus on US interests”, in contrast to his predecessors, who are seen as “insincere and liars”.
There appear to be three possible options evolving within the Korean peninsula:
(1) The most likely scenario appears to be a massive first strike by the US and its allies, designed to neutralise the DPRK military machine, followed by occupation of the country and the creation of a sanitary zone 20 kilometres from the border with China, so as to ensure that Beijing’s security interests are taken account of in any deployment.
(2) The Trump administration goes the way of the Clinton, Bush and Obama eras and in effect permits the incremental progress of North Korea towards an operational nuclear strike capability that threatens not just Japan and South Korea, but parts of the US as well. This would be followed by the DPRK’s activation of a “thousand cuts” strategy, particularly against Japan, but very likely partially against the US and South Korea as well, the aim of actions against the latter being the wresting of concessions on trade and finance. The campaign against Japan would be with the same objective as that of the ISI’s war on India, the weakening and disruption of the country.
(3) President Trump enters into “breakthrough diplomacy” with Kim Jong Un and succeeds in mentoring a peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula that would result in a unified state that would be neutral between China and the US, the way Austria was for a time neutral between Moscow and Washington.
Success in Options (1) and (3), and ensuring failure on the part of the DPRK in Option (2), hinges on Beijing fully complying with a policy of sanctions against Pyongyang that would deny that country the present plentiful access to energy and food stocks from the PRC. While a “Bright Sunshine” policy needs to be followed towards North Korea, such a phase should come about only after a verifiable peace agreement has been reached that would begin the rollback of the nuclear and missile program. Should China refuse to impose such curbs, Option (1) may become inevitable.