Tick Tock Goes the Doomsday Clock

Craig Morgan
July 27, 2017

With North Korea, the doomsday clock inches ever closer to midnight.

On July 22, General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly announced that North Korea’s nuclear missile program has matured to the point that Pyongyang can now launch a “limited missile attack” against the United States, rendering the prospect of conflict not “unimaginable.” His remarks came on the back of another startling revelation that shows just how dangerous the crisis has become. At the Aspen Security Forum, where Dunford also spoke, CIA chief Mike Pompeo openly hinted that the Trump administration is actively exploring “regime change” options. The world, all consumed with the scandals engulfing the White House, now faces the very real possibility of sleepwalking into a nuclear conflict with North Korea. And the battle lines are already drawn.

In spite of repeated vows to work together with the US on stopping the Kim Jong-un regime’s nuclear program, China has done next to nothing — other than issuing boilerplate statements about doing “everything” to prevent conflict from breaking out. China has traditionally been unwilling to impose harsher economic sanctions on Pyongyang. At present, China is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner, making up more than 90% of its foreign trade. According to South Korean government estimates, in 2015 China received $2.5 billion-worth of North Korean exports, not counting the thriving black market across the Yalu River along the Chinese border.

This may come as a surprise since the Sino-North Korean relationship has been souring in recent times, as Pyongyang has become an increasingly petulant neighbor. The Kim regime has come to pose both a nuclear and cyber threat to China, while being actively involved in counterfeiting Chinese currency to the value of millions of dollars each year. In May, North Korea broke a longstanding taboo when it attacked China over media stories pressing for enhanced sanctions, even going so far as to threaten Beijing with “grave consequences” unless the reports subsided.

Even if China has the power to bring North Korea to its knees, it fears that harsher sanctions would cause the Kim regime to collapse and pave the way for a reunification of the Korean Peninsula under Seoul’s leadership — a nightmare scenario for the Chinese leadership.

And to top off this kerfuffle, Russia has also decided to step into the arena. Moscow and Pyongyang have taken steps to deepen their relationship as Sino-DPRK relations deteriorate. Ready to fill the void amid the nuclear standoff, Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) statement condemning North Korean missile tests, and even blocked a UNSC statement calling for renewed sanctions on Pyongyang. Beyond having Kim’s back in the UN, Russia has massively boosted its trade with the Hermit Kingdom by a staggering 73% during the first two months of 2017 alone.

Already sharing a long history of ideological and economic ties, recent projects point to even closer relations between Russia and North Korea. Earlier this year, a cargo and passenger ferry service opened between North Korea’s Rajin and Vladivostok in Russia’s far east. Furthermore, Russian military hardware has been spotted being transported to the border with North Korea, though Russia was quick to shoot down criticism by citing “routine” military exercises. Russia may never entirely replace China’s influence over North Korea, but much like Beijing, it is in Moscow’s best interest to maintain the North as a buffer state. By laying the groundwork for stronger ties with North Korea, Russia is now able to spoil American efforts on the peninsula.


North Korea’s diplomatic offensive doesn’t stop there. The plot twist comes from hitherto one of Washington’s closest allies: South Korea. Freshly-minted President Moon Jae-in is on the verge of reversing Seoul’s Pyongyang policy by embracing a more amicable approach to North Korea. Favoring a twin-track approach with a heavy emphasis on pursuing dialogue, Moon has sought to demonstrate his goodwill straight away. In May, Seoul approved the first inter-Korean civilian exchange since the start of 2016, after relations were put on hold following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test. As winter approaches, approvals of humanitarian assistance to North Korea are bound to increase, and Moon’s olive branch shows no sign of wavering.

That Moon’s Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK) would try to cozy up to Pyongyang is not entirely unexpected. The party has not been shy to speak rather apologetically about North Korea’s nuclear program, and some MPK elements remain overly sympathetic to the north, perhaps including Moon himself, whose role in colluding with North Korea on abstaining from the 2007 UN resolution on the DPRK’s human rights abuses is well documented.

But the most dangerous aspect of this détente comes from the fact that Moon is ready to allow Pyongyang to drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan. The president’s rejection of the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement struck with Japan mirrors Pyongyang’s criticisms and speaks to a worrisome lack of strategic foresight that is playing into North Korea’s cards.

The historic comfort women agreement was considered a landmark deal to lay an old issue to rest. After grinding negotiations that even saw the US mediator, Ambassador Mark Lippert, attacked by a Korean nationalist, Japan agreed to set up a fund worth 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) for comfort women and issued an apology. However, Pyongyang was quick to call the accord “humiliating,” and has since attempted to undermine South Korea’s alliances with Tokyo. On July 19, the South Korean government announced the establishment of a task force to re-examine the accord, in what is the latest spatfollowing months of controversy that saw the withdrawal of Japan’s ambassador to South Korea earlier this year.

The global failure to discourage North Korea’s nuclear program speaks volumes about the state of the anti-North Korea coalition. With the clock ticking, it is more important than ever that South Korea boosts cooperation with Japan and cements the alliance with the US. But with China and Russia actively bolstering the Kim regime, and with Seoul wavering, it’s no wonder that talk of war on the Korean Peninsula is rife.