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US needs to shift North Korea policy to deterrence: expert

Japan, South Korea should also rethink their defense strategies

Evan Medeiros, Managing Director, Asia, Eurasia Group

SINGAPORE -- The latest sanctions on North Korea agreed at the United Nations Security Council are important, but not sufficient to stop Kim Jong Un's ambition to make his country a nuclear-armed state, a prominent political expert said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday.

"It is very unlikely that any amount of pressure is going to force North Korea to give up [nuclear and missile] capability, especially right now because, I think, Kim Jong Un believes he is very close to having a fully operational nuclear-capable [inter-continental ballistic missile] maybe within a year or two," said Evan Medeiros, Asia managing director of New York-based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, in Singapore.

Asked if the U.S. must eventually accept North Korea as a nuclear power, Medeiros suggested that would be case. "The sooner the U.S. shifts to a comprehensive strategy of deterrence and containment, the better."

The former special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for Asian affairs at the White House's National Security Council called the latest U.N. resolution "an important, but incremental step." Yet he warned that the North Koreans "are very good at circumventing these kinds of sanctions."

"Fundamentally it won't change the strategic equation," Medeiros said.

The U.S.-drafted resolution was adopted unanimously by the 15 members of security council on Sept. 11 following North Korea's sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3. The U.S. originally called for a full ban on oil exports to North Korea and a freeze of the assets of the leadership and the government, but removed those provisions to get agreement from China and Russia.

U.S. President Donald Trump later called it "just another very small step," threatening that the latest sanctions "are nothing compared to what will ultimately have to happen."

U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks to reporters about North Korea in Bedminster, New Jersey on Aug. 11.   © Reuters

Medeiros argued that there is no better option for the U.S. than "maximum pressure," as the costs of military action are too high.

"I think the U.S. is eventually going to have to shift to the policy of deterrence and containment." But before getting to that point, the U.S. "has to go through the interim steps of maximum pressure in order to at least develop some kind of understanding with China about next steps."

What of the options for South Korea and Japan, both U.S. Allies and neighbors of North Korea? The most important thing is for them to remain as closely allied with the U.S. as possible in their defense strategies, Medeiros said.

"Privately, two governments and two militaries need to begin thinking about what deterrence and containment look like, which is going to involve more unilateral military capabilities and bilateral military activities with the U.S. and with each other," he added. "This is the strategic reality."

The question to ask is whether the people of Japan are prepared to accept greater military capability with potential offensive powers for the purpose of deterrence, he said. It is "complicated" for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he said, who has his sights on a third-term as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and an upcoming Lower House election.

He said that China, which receives 90% of North Korea's exports, is a crucial player in increasing pressure on the North Korean regime. Relations between the two countries, however, are at a "historic low" and "going worse," Medeiros said.

"Kim Jong Un has calculated that, no matter how bad his behavior is, China is not willing to see North Korea collapse. So Kim Jong Un will push the boundaries based on that assumption, and to manipulate China," according to Medeiros.

On one hand, China doesn't want collapse, chaos and war on the Korean Peninsula. But on the other, it doesn't want Kim Jong Un to continue to create instability and chaos through its nuclear and missile programs, he said. Whether Chinese President Xi Jin Ping will be willing to put serious pressure on North Korea after the Chinese leadership's 19th party congress in October, he said: "I am doubtful."

A missile is launched during a long and medium-range ballistic rocket launch drill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on August 30, 2017.   © Reuters

On the topic of Southeast Asia, Medeiros said the ongoing crisis of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Myanmar is "the real test" for the "current function and future relevance" of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. More than 370,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a military crackdown in Myanmar across the border into Bangladesh, an exodus that has raised concerns it could destabilize the region. Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the humanitarian situation "catastrophic."

The situation has angered two of ASEAN's Muslim-majority nations, Malaysia and Indonesia. "This is a problem that affects multiple ASEAN countries," Medeiros said. "This is an issue that highlights tensions at heart of the ASEAN Charter. On the one hand, [there is a] need to respect human rights and prevent genocide. But on the other hand, one of the long-standing principles of ASEAN is non-interference of each other's [domestic] affairs. But in a globalized world, adherence to the principle will no longer be absolute," he said. "This is the real challenge to the core legitimacy of ASEAN."

Managing the crisis has to start with the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, who should address the legitimate concerns of the Rohingya, Medeiros said. But he said she is in a "very difficult position," as taking action could create serious domestic political challenges, including possible tensions with the military, which is "essential for broad political stability in Myanmar."

On the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia, Medeiros said that as the U.S. becomes more effective against ISIS in the Middle East, the risk rises in Asia as fighters return to the region. "This is an under-appreciated security challenge in the region," he said.

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