It's time Pyongyang saw reason

Updated: 2013-04-18 08:02

By Zhang Jingquan (China Daily)

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The situation on the Korean Peninsula is disturbing. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea has annulled the Armistice Agreement that halted the Korean War, intensified its rhetoric and moved its missile launchers to strategic sites. The Republic of Korea and the United States have held joint military drills and the United Nations Security Council has imposed fresh sanctions on the DPRK in response. These developments have raised fears of another war breaking out on the Peninsula.

History tells us that countries involved in wars - mostly after being attacked or invaded - were often isolated states like the DPRK. Many would argue against the contention, saying the DPRK has been in isolation for decades, but the fact is it was never as isolated as it is today.

Pyongyang faces the worst possible sanctions. Despite that, it has defied the UN to conduct missile and nuclear tests and thus invited two new sanctions in less than two months, which is rare.

Reacting to the joint US-ROK military drill, the DPRK nullified the Armistice Agreement of 1953. From the perspective of international law, the Peninsula has been in a continued state of war, and the US and the ROK could use even an accidental act by the DPRK to launch a preemptive strike.

The DPRK lacks the support of a major power. Despite making great efforts to resolve the DPRK nuclear issue and restore permanent peace and stability on the Peninsula, China had to make the tough decision of supporting the UN Security Council resolution after the DPRK conducted its third nuclear test.

Even Russia backed the Security Council resolution. Talking to CNN, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia this time agrees with the US, even though Moscow has been on good terms with Pyongyang.

Strategically (and even tactically) speaking, the DPRK is at a great disadvantage. If a war really breaks out, it will face massive food and medical problems.

Of course, the "pivot to Asia" policy of the US has played a role in the current plight of the DPRK. In 2011, the US shifted its focus from the Middle East and Southwest Asia to the Asia-Pacific region, strengthening its alliance with the ROK and Japan. After more than one year's efforts, the US' rebalancing policy in the Asia-Pacific region, though widely criticized, is unfolding with its antenna stretching toward Beijing and Pyongyang.

Washington's tolerance level with Pyongyang has declined after Barack Obama began his second term as US president. During his first term, Obama had adopted the so-called policy of strategic patience with an open mind, and promised to increase contacts and alliances in the region while waiting for the DPRK to return to the table to resolve the Peninsula nuclear issue. But there is no guarantee that the Nobel Peace Prize winner will not use non-peaceful means to deal with the DPRK during his second term in office.

Besides, an increasing number of Americans today see the DPRK as a threat to the US. A recent poll shows that 41 percent Americans consider the DPRK a direct threat. It is widely believed that Pyongyang will conduct nuclear and missile tests alternately this year. It could, for example, test-fire a Musudan missile, which has a range of 3,500 kilometers and is designed to reach the US' crucial Asia-Pacific military base in Guam.

Therefore, relevant countries should make concerted efforts to de-escalate tensions on the Peninsula immediately. Contacts and dialogue, even through non-official channels, should be continued to prevent Pyongyang from taking measures that could lead to a war. The urgent need is to maintain restraint.

All the measures the DPRK has taken, including nuclear and missile tests and issuing of alerts to foreign envoys in Pyongyang, are part of its asymmetric strategy. If its hostile rhetoric is answered in equal terms, the situation will spiral out of control.

The DPRK has been using threats to unite people at home and as a card to force relevant countries to agree to at least some of its conditions. But now it seems to have exhausted all the means at its disposal to elicit any "positive" response from the outside world. So it is time relevant countries, especially China, made their bottom-line clear: Dialogue and cooperation, not nuclear tests, are the way to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

War is the failure of politics. Hence, relevant countries have to make serious and sincere efforts to ensure that politics does not fail in its endeavor to ease tensions and restore permanent peace on the Peninsula.

The author is a professor at Northeast Asian Studies Academy of Jilin University.