Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China, on September 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Wu Hong

China’s “double freeze” proposal (strongly backed by Russia) calling for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to stop testing missiles and nuclear weapons and for the US and South Korea to end their joint military exercises would not only bring stability to the Korean Peninsula but also makes economic and geopolitical sense.

Resources would be appropriately and efficiently allocated. Instead of wasting money on war preparations, it could be used on programs to enhance the economies of both Koreas.

Both North and South Korea require economic stimulation. The DPRK is one of the poorest countries on Earth, whose people are said to be on the brink of starvation. Meanwhile the South’s economy is struggling to stay above water, with youth employment particularly hard hit.

However, the administration of US President Donald Trump is rejecting the “double freeze” proposal as well as calls to establish a dialogue with the DPRK.

Analysis of Trump’s stance

Technically, the US and its allies are still at war with the DPRK (and perhaps China as well) in that the Korean War (1950-53) ended with an armistice, a temporary halt of fighting. As a consequence, the US insists that military exercises on the peninsula are necessary to maintain and enhance combat readiness.

The Korean War, said to have been started by the North invading the South, prompted the US to establish an international force under the auspices of the United Nations to intervene on South Korea’s behalf. The US-led force quickly drove DPRK forces back nearly to the Chinese border, emboldening General of the Army Douglas MacArthur to boast  that US troops would return home in time for Christmas in 1950.

However, US bombing of border towns prompted China to enter the war, dragging it out to more than three years, only to be ended in a stalemate. Ever since, the hostility between the two sides has never gone away.

Mistrust and border skirmishes involving firefights continued. The Six-Party Talks were initiated by China in 2003 amid the DPRK’s withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, only to be terminated in 2009 when the US alleged that Pyongyang’s failed satellite launch was actually a disguised test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

In that year the DPRK resumed its nuclear tests, detonating an atomic  device underground. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean patrol boat, killing 104 sailors. The DPRK bombed the South’s Yeonpyeong Island a few months later.

Nevertheless, the DPRK sees the US-South Korea military exercises as a prelude to overthrowing the Pyongyang regime, prompting it to build up a nuclear arsenal at any cost, taking a page out of China’s playbook. The Soviet Union and the US had threatened China with  pre-emptive nuclear attacks in the the 1960s, forcing Mao Zedong to acquire an atomic bomb even when the country could ill-afford it. Kim Jong-un’s determination has a similar ring, acquiring nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them even if his people have to “eat grass” (to quote Russian President Vladimir Putin).

Moreover, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombing of Libya after Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear-weapons program might also have entered the DPRK’s calculus. At first, NATO praised Gaddafi (and British prime minister Tony Blair even hugged him) for abandoning the program. But a few months later, NATO forces bombed Libya “back to the stone age”.

Given the current circumstances, neither side in the Korea crisis is likely to back away from its current position.

Tensions on the peninsula have been further heightened because Trump has dismissed South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s proposal of a dialogue with his northern neighbor as “appeasement”. Trump even suggests that the DPRK only understands one thing: power.

Neither harsh sanctions nor pressuring China to rein in the DPRK will deter it from carrying out additional missile and nuclear-weapons tests. Sanctions did not work before and there is no reason to believe they will be effective today. China does not have the leverage to stop the DPRK from doing what it is doing, however much the West wants to  believe otherwise.

Trump’s threat of not trading with nations doing business with the DPRK and putting a military option on the table are non-starters.

Few economic, military options

The general consensus among security experts is that the US has no viable economic or military options. A pre-emptive attack on the DPRK would not only endanger millions of lives in South Korea, Japan and US possessions on Asia, it might also bring China and Russia into the fray. China is reported to have warned the US that an attack on the DPRK will not be tolerated, a stance it demonstrated in the past by its entry into the Korean War.

Russia might also get involved because of its geographical proximity to the Korean Peninsula. Like China, it does not want a war on its doorstep. A military clash between the US and its allies on one side and China, Russia and the DPRK on the other would culminate in an unthinkable loss of lives and properties by all participants.

Threatening to stop trade with countries (read China) that do business with the DPRK could cripple the US economic recovery. China is the United States’ biggest trade partner, with two-way trade valued at US$650 billion last year according to official US statistics.

It has been calculated that more than 65% of Chinese “exports” are produced by US firms, including those of Ivanka Trump’s clothing and shoe company. Boeing, General Motors, Apple and other mammoth US enterprises are highly dependent on the Chinese market. Boeing is expecting to secure a big percentage of the 7,200 commercial aircraft that Chinese airlines plan to purchase over the next 20 years.

US motives

Speculations abound as to why the US rejects the “double freeze” and dialogue architectures. Some would suggest that by accepting the proposals, the US might be showing signs of weakness and lack of commitment to defend its allies.

Others suggest that US neoconservatives and the military-industrial complex are pushing the hardline stance to increase arms sales to South Korea and Japan. Trump may have hinted as much, saying he is willing to sell more advanced weapons to those two allies. What’s more, Seoul has agreed to install four more THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile launchers supplied by the US.

Whatever reasons for the hawkish US posture, the likelihood of a war on the Korean Peninsula over the nuclearization issue is remote, for reasons cited earlier. Further, the DPRK is too small to threaten any country, let alone the US. It is only testing missiles and nuclear weapons to deter a “regime change” by the US and its allies. However, since neither side is backing down from its position, tension on the peninsula will escalate.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.