North Korea Tension Seen from the Middle East

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

September 8, 2017

North Korea’s defiance of the international community and the escalation of the war of words between the Kim Jong-Un regime and the administration of President Donald Trump have provoked a number of reactions across the region. Some believe that President Trump is right to push back forcefully against the North Korean threats. But many fear that the war of words may inadvertently lead to a hot conflict with disastrous consequences for everyone. For others, the ongoing tensions raise the issues of the Iranian nuclear program and the nuclear status of the states in the Middle East, including Israel, as well as the concern that unheeded red-lines may convince the Iranians to pursue the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.


Some regional commentators have used all the attention directed toward a nuclear-armed rogue regime to highlight the dangers that a similarly-armed Iran may pose for the region and the world. For example, writing for Arab News, Majid Rafizadeh is quick to draw the parallels between the two countries: “Iran is North Korea’s major partner in the sale, transfer and proliferation of ballistic missile technology. Iran’s missiles are copies of North Korea’s. Both countries flout international law, sponsor terrorism and employ military hardware such as ballistic missiles to threaten the security and interests of other nations…. The Trump administration should lead a much more robust effort in response to Iran’s aggressive ballistic missile proliferation…. Inaction from the Trump administration, the international community and regional powers will be seen by Tehran as weakness and a continuation of Barack Obama’s appeasement policies.”

Jerusalem Post’s Yonah Jeremy Bob, on the other hand, has a very different concern when it comes to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, fearing both the breaking of the taboo surrounding a nuclear attack as well as the failure to see one’s threats through: “Israel has worried that admitting its status could egg on its hostile neighbors to go after their own programs, much as Iran, Iraq and Syria have tried. North Korea has been the one exception to the restraint rule, for years threatening its neighbors and the US with fiery rhetoric of nuclear destruction…. But how again does this impact Israel?… [T]he wider Middle East nuclear arms race Israel has feared would be far more likely to happen if countries believed they were all now more at risk of being hit by nuclear weapons because the taboo was broken. An entirely different, but dangerous, possibility is that Trump continues his bellicose threats, but does not follow through. This could encourage North Korea, Iran (which could drop the nuclear deal) and others to move forward more aggressively, if they viewed Trump as full of hot air.”

But Hurriyet Daily News’s Mustafa Aydin casts the events in Korean Peninsula as one that pits the United States and China against each other, suggesting that a conflict between the two countries would not serve either country’s interests: “Korea’s second intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on July 28, three weeks after its first test on July 4, raised tensions in the Asia-Pacific and strained relations between China and the United States…. Although President Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, had the chance to discuss the growing threat of North Korea during the G20 summit in Hamburg at the beginning of July, President Trump’s recent tweets confirm that they are not yet on the same page…. While China has been challenging U.S. supremacy in international politics for a while, neither China nor the U.S. is willing to have a showdown soon over North Korea. Thus, the best option under the circumstances would be to find a diplomatic way out yet again. Otherwise, the risks of rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific with the potential to end in war would be costly for all involved.”

However, some in the region have expressed frustration with the North Korean regime and have openly supported Mr. Trump’s bellicose language, although few expect a conflict in the near future. Writing for Asharq Alawsat, Ghasan Charbel argues that the North Korean leader this time has gone “too far”: “Kim believes in the doctrine of his father and grandfather. He is a ruler undeterred by poverty rates or number of people dead due to famine. Criticism by organizations or newspapers is not welcomed in his country. Collision with the outside world is beneficial for his regime’s unity. The beloved leader doesn’t fear UN Resolutions or pleas made by its members. There is no need to be worried about the Council unless the big powers agreed and a US-General sponsored execution began, which is unlikely and inconceivable currently. This time, Kim went too far. He said that all of the US territories are within the missile range, any time and any place, adding that Washington’s war threat justifies North Korea’s desire to develop nuclear weapons. He disregarded US threats and criticism, and Chinese and Russian advice.”

The National’s editorial on the topic was even more pointed, suggesting that it was time that someone spoke the language of force, rather than diplomacy, with the North Korean regime: “After more than two decades of fruitless diplomacy and indulgence of its behavior, America has evidently run out of patience with Pyongyang…. Faith in Washington’s security commitments to Tokyo and Seoul have no doubt been undermined by the fact that Pyongyang’s missiles can now strike America’s population. Will America come to South Korea’s aid if doing so would invite a nuclear attack from North Korea?… Beijing failed to deliver. All of this has emboldened Pyongyang. Mr Kim now threatens to bomb Guam, the tiny US territory in the Pacific where 6,000 American soldiers are stationed. Mr Trump’s opponents aren’t thrilled about his “fire and fury” flourish, but it is long past time someone spoke to Mr Kim in a language he understands.”

Responding to the latest tests, the Gulf News editorial continues to stress the importance of finding a diplomatic solution out of the crisis, even though one gets the sense that even the authors of the editorial are skeptical of its chances for success: “North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ballooning obsession with developing nuclear missiles that target US cities must be effectively punctured soon… So whether it takes tough new UN sanctions, a further deployment of the strategic assets of the United States military and its allies around North Korea, or full diplomatic and economic isolation of Pyongyang — this is a time for decisive action…. The only way to move forward and resolve the long-simmering problems of the Korean peninsula is through dialogue. Ironically, the international community has spent enough energy on the semantics of the situation with North Korea. It is time now for purposeful action that prevents the crisis from escalating into a full-blown war with catastrophic consequences.”

The Gulf Times editorial, meanwhile, accuses the Trump administration of making an already difficult situation even more precarious: “The problem with issuing a dire ultimatum as a first response to a traditionally bellicose regime is that the one issuing it is boxed in. That could well be the problem that President Donald Trump could likely face as he deals with North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s increasingly aggressive moves threatening the US…. It is hard to make concession in the name of Trump’s characteristic penchant for hyperbole and bluster because he is dealing with a leader who has lived outside international norms in the tradition of his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung. Unless the US president thinks that he can conduct his country’s foreign policy with a measure of matching cavalier style, his threat might turn out to be a case of premature articulation.”

In a guest commentary for the Jordan Times, Minghao Zhao underlines China’s importance when it comes to dealing with North Korea, as well as the former’s less than optimal relationship with the United States. Accusing the Trump administration of going “to great lengths” to alienate the Chinese government, Zhao adds that “As North Korea’s main trading partner, China has substantial leverage over the country. China’s suspension of North Korean coal imports alone — part of its obligations under the Security Council resolution — will reduce the North’s export earnings by an estimated $400 million this year (while also costing China a pretty penny) …. But China has serious reservations about America’s North Korea policy. For example, China adamantly opposes the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, claiming that it undermines China’s own security. Moreover, China condemns ‘secondary sanctions’ placed by the US on Chinese companies and individuals found to have illicit dealings with North Korea as assaults on its sovereignty.”

Moreover, few see the United States coming out as clear moral, political, or military winners from the ongoing impasse. Writing for the Khaleej Times, Benjamin Habib believes that the ongoing war of words and whatever may follow guarantees a no-win scenario for the United States: “There seems to be no outcome from this crisis in which U.S. power is enhanced. This adds to the gravity of the Trump administration’s impending response to the nuclear test…. If the U.S. sits down to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea, its regional prestige will be forever damaged — and the raison d’être of its military presence in South Korea will evaporate…. It seems likely that regional countries will ultimately have to find a way to manage a nuclear North Korea. There are no avenues for the Trump administration to demonstrate strength and resolve that do not ultimately expose the limitations of that strength. The North Korea crisis is the most obvious face of hegemonic transition. Trump’s U.S. is facing a set of outcomes to the current crisis that are lose-lose. They are exposing the reality of U.S. decline and the growing limitations of its ability to shape the strategic environment in northeast Asia.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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