North Korean Nuclear and Missile Tests: India as Mediator?

20 September 2017 Major-General S. B. Asthana (Retd), SM, VSM, FDI Associate


The perceptible disappointment of the Trump Administration at being unable to resolve the North Korean issue was predictable. Whereas Washington sought to employ China as part of the solution, it failed to recognise that the latter was actually part of the problem. China uses North Korea as a “frontline” or buffer state, just as it does Tibet. Beijing’s strategy of arming Pyongyang to enable it to better perform that function appears, however, to have backfired, with the Kim regime now appearing to have become a liability due to its preoccupation with nuclear weapons and its threat to attack the US mainland and its forces on Guam with those.


North Korea claims that its development of nuclear weapons and their attendant delivery systems are a deterrent against an antagonistic US. It has a valid argument there. General MacArthur, by many accounts, spoke of using atomic weapons against Pyongyang. From the perspective of the Kim regime, the actions of the US in deposing and eliminating the Saddam regime in Iraq and its Gadhafi equivalent in Libya possibly justify the fears of being overthrown. It is interesting to note, however, that the North Korean ambassador to India spoke to Indian news channel WION on 21 June and expressed Pyongyang’s willingness to talk to the US, but without any preconditions being imposed upon it. He also indicated the regime’s willingness to discuss the idea of a weapons-testing moratorium.

Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile tests have placed China in a difficult situation. The US is now putting a lot of pressure, directly and indirectly, on Beijing to rein in Pyongyang. China announced earlier that it would suspend its coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year, but it is possible that it has enhanced trade with Pyongyang in other areas. It would appear that China’s reluctance to sever ties with North Korea stems from its over-riding need to retain the latter as a buffer state between itself and the US’s regional allies, Japan and South Korea.

It is difficult to see how China would do anything different, based on this logic, even if North Korea initiates a conflict. While Beijing has stated that if North Korea were to attack the US or its allies China would not defend it, it has been equally at pains to make clear that it would actively resist any attempt, implicitly by the US or its allies, to effect regime change in Pyongyang. The reasoning is clear. Regime change effected by a democracy could only lead to democracy taking root across the Korean Peninsula and pose a subsequent risk to the Communist Party’s hold on power in China.

Admiral Harry Harris, chief of the US Pacific Command, believes that India could play a role in resolving the crisis, stating, ‘I think India’s voice is a loud voice, which people pay attention to. So, I think that India could help North Korea, perhaps, understand the seriousness by which the United States views that threat.’ While India has historical, diplomatic and trade links with North Korea, and has trained some North Korean space science students previously, it has repeatedly stated its concerns about North Korea’s nuclear tests and continues to do so. New Delhi has also voiced its concerns about Pakistan reportedly selling nuclear technology to North Korea. New Delhi fears that if North Korea’s nuclear know-how develops further, there could be a reverse flow of that knowledge to Pakistan. It is further alarmed by North Korea’s support to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.

India continues to condemn the North Korean missile tests, therefore, has implemented the sanctions imposed against it by the US and has scrapped its trade links with North Korea. Despite these measures, however, India’s leverage in this regard is very limited.

North Korea has reportedly resumed work at its underground nuclear testing site, saying that it would ‘redouble the efforts to increase its strength to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and right to existence’ and establish ‘practical equilibrium with the US.’ This, as Sputnik News alleges, is because ‘Pyongyang appears to utilise the “Bluff and Bluster” strategy. Create a geopolitical crisis and request compromise from opposing forces, assuming they can be rewarded since other nations want to prevent war’.

It is the rigorous implementation of sanctions along with smart diplomacy that could prove the more positive and hopeful way forward to diffuse the crisis. The Russian role is often underplayed but is significant, as Moscow is affected by the US deployment of advanced anti-missile radar systems in South Korea. Track Two talks between the most-affected parties must commence immediately. While it is understandable that Washington would prefer not to talk directly with North Korea, a proxy – perhaps even India – may just be able to convince Pyongyang that the strategic aim of the US is not to effect regime change, but for the North to give up its nuclear programme. China, as was noted earlier, cannot be relied upon to resolve the issue due its own strategy.

North Korea has conveyed its willingness to talk to the US, albeit without preconditions, and to being open to the idea of a moratorium. This opening could be taken forward diplomatically, without giving an impression of the US and other global players falling prey to North Korea’s “Bluff and Bluster”. The US threat of military action also needs to be maintained but only as a last resort. If South Korea does donate US$8 million in humanitarian aid to deserving people in North Korea as it says it will, it needs to ensure that the funds reach those people. Any softening by affected countries could embolden North Korea to pursue more irresponsible actions and will not sit well with the US and its allies. North Korea’s tendency to use nuclear blackmail must be arrested.

As the Trump Administration continues to struggle for a viable solution, statements like ‘effective and overwhelming response’ alone will not help. It now remains to be seen how Washington will respond.

About the Author

Major-General Asthana has 36 years of defence experience at the national and international levels. During his military carrier, he held various key appointments in the Army and the United Nations and was awarded twice by the President of India and twice by the UN. He retired from active Army service in 2014 and is presently the Chief Instructor of all courses for military officers in the United Service Institute of India. Maj-Gen Asthana is a life member of various think-tanks, including the Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis, USI of India and the Centre for Land Warfare Studies. He has been interviewed by various Indian and international media channels and has written for the Economic Times, Washington Post, Guardian and South China Morning Post. He researches international issues, mainly pertaining to China, and has authored over 30 publications and 60 blogs. In addition to delivering talks on strategic issues in various universities, he is an external examiner for the MPhil degree at Panjab University. Maj-Gen Asthana is a doctoral researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, holds two MPhil degrees, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Human Resource Management and various management degrees.

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