North Korea is primarily striving to preserve its regime, says Korean expert, Eric Ballbach. How can the conflict with the U.S. be checked?

Does the World Face an Imminent Nuclear Conflict?

Donald Trump in Washington and Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang are heads of state who, above all, want to demonstrate strength, and who do not rely on moderating exchange. Even if it is currently just a matter of a verbal escalation, we must take the possibility of a military escalation seriously. In spite of this, I do not think military escalation is probable at this time for three reasons. First, we have no knowledge as to where the North Korean weapons arsenal, conventional weapons included, is located, because the depots and storage are located underground. Second, one of the most dynamic economic regions in the world would be hit. Along with the interests of South Korea, China and Japan, U.S. interests would be affected as well; the consequences for the world economy would be dramatic. And third, South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is situated just 30 miles from the North Korean border; even a conventional strike from the North would be devastating, and the same applies to Tokyo.

Accordingly, What Is the Situation in South Korea?

The new government faces tremendous challenges. On the one hand, President Moon Jae ran with the promise of placing relations with North Korea on a new basis, by means of cooperation and integration; on the other hand, the U.S. is the most important defensive power. These competing interests must now be aligned with one another. In principle, the prevailing understanding in South Korea is that the crisis can only be resolved through dialogue, but the White House sees it differently at present.

Observers believe that Trump’s harsh words are indirectly a call for China to become more engaged in the crisis. What is China able to do and what does it want?

The representation of possibilities for Beijing’s political influence is completely exaggerated. Economically, it looks different. More than 80 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade travels across China. Trade between the two nations in the first quarter of 2017 has even risen 37 percent. Even if China is highly dissatisfied with North Korea’s behavior, and if it backed the most recent U. N. sanctions, it wants a collapsing neighbor even less.

Why?

First, peace in the region is desirable to avoid the endangerment of economic development, and there is great concern about the unrestricted movement of refugees out of North Korea. In addition, a possible reunification of Korea under South Korean rule would then mean U.S. troops on China’s external border. This scenario is unacceptable for Beijing, and therefore the country’s leaders will not support sanctions that endanger the stability of the North Korean regime. According to conservative estimates, its economy grew about 4 percent last year.

What Will the Just Enacted Sanctions Achieve?

Probably not very much. The aim of the sanctions is to cut North Korea off from its primary exports, that is, fish and seafood on the one hand and raw materials like iron ore on the other. In addition, the foreign trade banks are to be cut off from the international capital market. In practice, however, China will probably not stick to the sanctions. Prior to the U.S. president‘s verbal outburst on Monday, the influential Chinese Global Times wrote that sanctions alone would not help, and criticized the U.S. for its “moral arrogance over North Korea.” With his latest statement, Trump may have even done some damage from the Chinese point of view.

What Would Be a Way Out of the Crisis Now?

The bilateral Geneva Dialogue of the 1990s and the Six-Party Talks between 2003 and 2008 had the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as a goal. Because Pyongyang has made it clear that it will not depart from its nuclear program, these formats are obsolete. To start with, it must now be clarified why and what should be negotiated. Clearly, there is no “big solution” here; rapprochement can only be achieved step-by-step. A first step would be, for example, an agreement that North Korea would not give or sell its nuclear arsenal and knowledge to a third party. Ultimately, it is a matter of negotiations about a guarantee of safety and a nonaggression pact.

Is That What Kim Jong Un Wants?

For the North Korean ruler, the overriding goal is the preservation of the regime. Therefore, a strategic decision was made in 2008 to establish a nuclear arsenal as the ultimate guarantee of safety. In doing so, incidentally, Iraq and Libya were repeatedly pointed to as examples of countries that were vulnerable to attack because they did not possess nuclear weapons.

Eric Ballbach is the director of the North Korea and International Security research department at the Institute for Korean Studies at the Free University of Berlin. The interview was conducted by Ruth Ciesinger.