North Korea's sabre-rattling ways will be best countered by the US through talks

President Kim Jong-un is playing his nuclear card very well. Despite the latest round of crippling sanctions announced by the UNSC and world-wide condemnation, he continues to provoke, secure in the knowledge that he can get away with this kind of brinkmanship.

Yes, he definitely has the upper hand for the moment: sanctions have not yet began to bite, and Kim Jong-un is depending on China and Russia not to enforce them strictly.

North Korea’s sabre rattling has heightened tensions in the region. South Korea and Japan, close allies of the US are the hardest hit. “North Korea’s provocative missile launch represents the second time the people of Japan, a treaty ally of the United States, have been directly threatened in recent week,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after Thursday’s launch of an intermediate range intercontinental missile by North Korea. The missile overflew Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. Analysts in the US said it was the same as the previous Hwasong-12 missile that Pyongyang tested near Japan last month.

This kind of provocation from any other country would have US President Donald Trump, (a great believer in forcefully projecting American power) to order immediate retaliation—target North Korea’s nuclear facility and ensure that the rapidly expanding program is set back for decades. This would end what in the West is being perceived as nuclear blackmail by Pyongyang. On Thursday , Trump again made it clear that military action remained an option. But there are several problems for the US, despite its tremendous military and technological superiority.

File photo of Kim-Jong-un. AFP

File photo of Kim-Jong-un. AFP

Lack of accurate information about the hermit kingdom is a major hurdle. Intelligence on the exact location of North Korea’s nuclear facilities is not completely accurate. To strike a nuclear facility, the information on location must be exact. While the US knows the general area around the nuclear installations, there is little accuracy. Most of the facilities are deep in the mountain terrain and mostly underground. Targets can be destroyed when they can be pinpointed and seen from various angles. Chances of missing the target or hitting the wrong target increase a hundred fold without exact information. North Korean facilities are well hidden, increasing the risk of an attack going wrong. Retaliation by Kim Jong-un would be immediate and not worthwhile if the facility is not destroyed.

The US lacks ground information on North Korea. Usually the best intelligence is gathered by local men and women deployed on the ground. Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts were tracked by the US with the help of a Pakistani doctor. Americans have little connection with North Korea, with neither commercial nor diplomatic ties. So, interaction with citizens is rare. Cyber espionage or electronic eavesdropping is also not as exact as in other countries. Satellite photos are the best way to collect intelligence in North Korea. But that also has its limits. It appears that imagery can help to track movement of the army as well as track vehicles and equipment on the ground. Test preparations on nuclear sites are also easily recorded. But satellites cannot penetrate underground facilities. According to Bruce Klinger a former CIA insider and now in the Heritage Foundation, who has been quoted extensively in the US press, running a spy network in North Korea is not easy. Seoul itself has problems doing so, though the people are of similar ethnicity. For one, there is some difference in dialect. The population in North Korea are fully indoctrinated. The state encourages all citizens to report unfamiliar faces in the locality. So, in a situation where people even report on their own families, it is not easy for strangers, even South Koreans, to go in as spies.

So what next? Nearly every person dealing with the crisis in Washington knows that the best option is to revive the six-nation nuclear talks with Pyongyang. Analysts point out that Kim Jong-un is not a maniac, bent on pressing the destruct button. He wants to basically protect his regime, and ensure that the US and China do not get together to force him out of power. Ever since George W Bush, included North Korea in the axis of evil comment, the ruling dynasty has little faith in Washington. The message to Pyongyang must be that the US is not seeking regime change in North Korea, but asking for policy change. While few believe that Kim Jong-un will ever give up the country’s nuclear program, some reassurance is necessary from Washington to boost Pyongyang’s confidence in the US. Once the mutual trust is established, the six party talks can be revived. At one point, talks between North Korea, South Korea, the US, France and UK, were able to pull North Korea from the brink. That could happen again, once Kim Jong-un is reassured that the US is not out to punish him through regime change. Can this message be sent to Pyongyang or does the White House consider this a show of weakness? Talks, talks and more talks with Kim Jong-un is the only answer.

Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 09:46 AM

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