North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile test seemed like a red line to many, but it should be understood that North Korea needs a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile not in order to behave like a "united Korea" as in the popular Homefront computer game.
What North Korea sees when it looks at the outside world is that the United States and its allies constantly striving to destroy it. This is confirmed by the statements of its politicians, the focus of its military exercises, and the fact that, according to the constitution of South Korea, the DPRK is not a country but an anti-state organization that illegally seized the northern part of the Republic of Korea. Add to this the absence of serious allies and the prohibitive level of demonization, where (in part because the country is closed to the outside world) even the most incredible tales about the Juche state find an audience.
North Korea's plan is simple: invest in the development of a nuclear missile program to the point where it will achieve a level of deterrence, where any attempt to topple the regime will trigger a nuclear retaliation. Even though the nuclear capabilities of its opponents are incomparably greater, the mere possibility that a North Korean nuclear ICBM could hit Los Angeles will be enough to cool down the hotheads. After that, according to Pyongyang, the United States and its allies will abandon their plans to eliminate the DPRK, and the relationship between the two countries will be similar to the United States' rivalry with Russia and China, which is built on mutual nuclear deterrence.
Naturally, such a policy pursued by the DPRK is fairly risky. First, the North defiantly ignores UN resolutions and sets a bad example for other countries which would like to resolve their issues by acquiring nuclear status. Second, the DPRK's actions create a security dilemma and set in motion a vicious circle of a regional arms race, giving the United States an opportunity to build up its military capabilities against the DPRK and, in fact, China and Russia.
As a result, all the leading players in northeast Asia face their own unpleasant choice. For the United States, the dilemma is whether to "fight or talk," which is exacerbated by the fact that Trump once wrote that a North Korean ICBM will never come to pass and, given the domestic political situation in America, he cannot lose face. However, the military option is extremely risky. North Korea is not a colossus on clay feet, and even though the ICBM is not yet ready, a strike on US military bases in South Korea and Japan will cause serious damage to the United States and its allies. Even US hawks believe that a second Korean war will be as difficult a conflict as the first one.
North Korea and the Limits of Trump’s and America’s Power
Not for the first time in the past century, Korea is the most dangerous place on Earth. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and missile program is making seemingly rapid progress. The July 4 test demonstrated that North Korea is getting closer to building a missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead or chemical weapons to the continental United States. Even though North Korea is not yet capable of such an attack, it almost certainly will be within the next ten years.
It would seem then that it is necessary to talk, but this is where the demonization comes into play. US public opinion is so used to thinking about the DPRK as an evil empire that any attempts to a dialogue, let alone make trade-offs, will be seen as a deal with the devil. Notably, this is what the part of the Bible Belt, which voted for Trump, actively believes.
Therefore, Washington does not want to make the hard choice, and, in fact, continues its old policy of trying to strangle North Korea with sanctions. The key difference from the previous course is that the emphasis is now on exerting pressure on China, which, according to Trump, is capable of resolving the North Korean issue, if it chooses to do so. This is why they are trying to drive China into a situation where it will have to make the hard choice.
However, this is not an easy choice for China, either. Of course, if Beijing continues to support Pyongyang, its relations with the United States may enter the conflict phase, including trade wars or cobbling together a regional anti-China coalition. However, China is not ready to openly challenge America, just as it is not ready to risk a new world order, where a nuclear DPRK may be followed by a nuclear Republic of Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
However, eliminating North Korea means creating a no less troublesome set of issues. The DPRK becoming a hot spot will force China to spend a large amount of resources on it, which is much more needed at home. The loss of a buffer territory is even more disadvantageous, since the United States will obtain a convenient strategic bridgehead, and the loss of a conventional vassal would be an even greater blow to China's prestige than the inability to control it. Finally, a strengthened South Korea is unlikely to be friendly to China, if only because the country's domestic problems will have to be drowned in nationalism, which will largely have an anti-China slant.
As a result, China is looking for ways to keep the situation from veering into any kind of conflict. In this context, the Chinese leadership has put forward the so-called "double freeze" project whereby North Korea will put a brake on developing its nuclear missile program, and the United States and its allies will stop the large-scale military exercises which take place several times a year and are used to practice offensive actions against the DPRK, and which North Korea perceives as a serious threat to its security. The way they are conducted, one order will be enough to turn a rehearsal into an invasion.
This Chinese proposal is supported by Russia as well. The joint declaration of the foreign ministries of the two countries quite clearly outlines a regional settlement plan, combining Beijing's initiatives with the road map developed by Russian diplomats. Just the other day, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, who oversees Russia's Far Eastern foreign policy, held talks on this matter in Washington.
In theory, much should depend on the position of Seoul now led by President Moon Jae-in, whom many see as a democrat. In my opinion, President Moon is more of a populist, and the tone of his remarks largely depends on the situation. In Germany, he talked about opening a dialogue, his readiness to meet with Kim Jong-un, and his opposition to unification by merger. However, during his visit to the United States, he was lavish in his praise of Trump's policies in the best traditions of conservative presidents. In addition, Moon's government has not yet been fully formed, and he is trying to pull off a balancing act, being dependent economically on China and politically on Washington.
To summarize: political uncertainty is quite high, but Russia's resolute actions to resolve the crisis give some hope.