India celebrated the 70th anniversary of Independence last month. Last Saturday was the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Between them, the two Asian nations have shattered the apartheid the victors of World War II had imposed. This shared link is all the more reason why New Delhi should back Vladimir Putin’s suggestion of talks to defuse a crisis that has reduced the United States to a state of gibbering hysteria and brought the world to the brink of a catastrophic war.
To suggest that other countries need to understand Pyongyang’s fears is not to support either Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship or his bizarre haircut. Nor is it to gloss over the grim implications of an episode that can be compared to the Cuban missile crisis. But realism demands an attempt to probe whether an impoverished North Korea is prepared to “eat grass” (as Mr Putin put it) to build the bomb only because of a ruler’s megalomania. The fanatic who had first used that phrase was driven by insane hatred, jealousy and suspicion of India. Is North Korea similarly moved by the US and South Korea, or a combination of the two?
Given the menacing magnitude of the 10-day “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” joint military exercise between the US and South Korean land, sea and air forces, Pyongyang’s fears may be understandable. The participants called “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” a routine annual event, but Kim Jong-un didn’t see it as anything but provocative muscle-flexing. North Korea’s state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, warned that the joint exercise was “the most explicit expression of hostility” with no guarantee it wouldn’t evolve into full-scale hostilities.
Unfortunately, the recent annual India-Japan defence dialogue made little attempt to explore Mr Kim’s thinking. It merely echoed the US in strongly condemning North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 3 when a device of more than 100 kilotons with several times more destructive power than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima in 1945 was exploded. While Japan may be worried about deteriorating conditions in the Korean peninsula, India’s principal – and perhaps only – concern is over Pakistan, which tested a new 2,200-km range Ababeel ballistic missile, carrying a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV) payload in January this year. Not to be lagging behind, India is also developing MIRVs — a single missile that can carry several nuclear warheads, each programmed to hit different targets — for its Agni series of ballistic missiles.
The major difference between the Indian and North Korean programmes lies in the American attitude. India’s development of nuclear warheads and missiles to deliver them would not have received even grudging global acceptance without George W. Bush’s extraordinary rapport with Dr Manmohan Singh. But as Pakistanis and Iranians might lament, what is sauce for the Indian goose is obviously not sauce for the North Korean gander.
The United Nations Security Council meeting early last week confirmed again that the present tenant of the White House is threatening Mr Kim with all manner of dire reprisals if he doesn’t abandon his nuclear ambitions. There were immediate threats of military reprisal after the September 3 test. Nikki Haley, the ethnic Indian US ambassador to the UN, had accused Mr Kim of “begging for war”. It was her way of repeating the warning of a “massive military response” that US defence secretary James Mattis had threatened. Donald Trump and South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, are pressing China and Russia for tough new sanctions to freeze Mr Kim’s personal assets, impose a complete oil embargo, not allow North Koreans to work overseas, and stop importing North Korean textiles.
Even Mr Putin denounced the September 3 test as a “crude violation” of the Security Council resolutions. But taking a more realistic view of the challenge, the Russian President also added: “At the same time, it is clear that it is impossible to resolve the problem of the Korean peninsula only by sanctions and pressure.” He feels sanctions alone would be “useless” without effective diplomacy. This could be India’s opportunity, if India were not so impervious to global imbalances and reluctant to offend Washington.
New Delhi is worried that North Korea’s recently-acquired expertise with the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile will also benefit Pakistan, whose 1,500-km range Ghauri-I missile was a derivative of the North Korean Nodong missile. The nexus still continues despite Chinese protestations to the contrary. In fact, over the decades China has systematically promoted both the Pakistani and North Korean nuclear programmes. Apart from the Sangh Parivar’s instinctive reservations about any Muslim regime having a bomb, it is specially galling that Pakistan’s rapidly expanding nuclear and missile arsenals should overtake India’s. Pakistan is estimated to have between 130 and 140 warheads, compared to India’s 110-120.
If there’s any real difference between the Indian and North Korean positions, however, it’s that India claims a plausible justification for its nuclear programme. The global nuclear divide is iniquitous. India’s tough neighbourhood demands a deterrent. The primacy of India’s civilian establishment over the military and its commitment to the no-first-use principle ensures the bomb will not be abused. An unstated reason could be India’s yearning for global prestige and permanent UN Security Council membership.
The unpredictable Mr Kim has never offered any rationale for his strategy. Western observers who expected him to celebrate the September 9 anniversary with another spectacular explosion caution that relief on this count might be premature. There’s still the October 10 anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party that Mr Kim is proud to head. This particular “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” must also be unravelled if the world is to sleep in peace. Sabre-rattling alone won’t achieve that.