Sandwiched between regional rivals like South Korea and Japan and facing military encirclement by the United States, North Korea is the only country that challenges the US global agenda. But Pyongyang’s brazen military muscle flexing is disturbing the diplomatic calculations of Asia on an unprecedented scale. Its recent long-range missile tests (one was an embarrassing failure) and threats to reduce South Korea’s capital Seoul to ashes in a storm of steel and fire in case of a US attack have got everyone scrambling for a coherent response. Even China, its closest ally, is unable to get a word in. Tensions between the two are high as Pyongyang considers Chinese mediation a betrayal of mutual interests. Normally, the US would give a situation this serious top billing but the Trump presidency’s habit of shooting itself in the foot has pushed it under the radar.

This is a story long in the making. It goes back to World War II. A Japanese colony from 1910 onwards, the Korean peninsula came under Allied control in 1945, after the Japanese collapse following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviet Union and the US divided it along the 38th Parallel and so North Korea and South Korea came into being. As their share of the spoils, the Soviets took North Korea while the US got South Korea. They have been divided ever since.

The Cold War had devastating consequences for prospects of Korean unification. The south adopted a democratic model, the north got a dynastic dictatorship of the Kim family, starting with Kim Il-sung and continuing now under his grandson Kim Jong-un. The difference in political systems further bedevilled the one Korea project.

Both Koreas are aware that nuclear weapons were responsible for the change of ownership, and subsequent division. But it is the north alone that has been obsessed with the nuclear quest since state formation. Part of the reason is, of course, the megalomaniacal nature of its leadership, starting with Kim II-sung (1948-1994), through Kim Jong-il (1994-2011), to Kim Jong-un (2011-) which emphasises strength of arms. The other part is its isolation and the feeling of acute insecurity and consequent need to secure itself in a neighbourhood bristling with military hardware.

The Korean war (1950-1953), dubbed by the first Kim as the “Fatherland Liberation War” was begun to integrate the two Koreas by force. It was foiled by US-led intervention, which solidified the borders along the 38th Parallel. The war also marks the start of the long friendship with the People’s Republic of China. It poured in some 200,000 troops in a timely intervention that ensured North Korea’s survival. Thousands of volunteers, including the son of Mao Zedong, lost their lives in the war, and at a state banquet for the North Korean delegation Mao described China and Korea “as close as lips and teeth”. Fighting ended with an armistice in 1953, the precursor to a final settlement, which never came about.

The Kim dynasty has learnt from watching other countries. Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan suffer at the discretion of the US. But Pakistan, a nuclear weapons state, has never been subject to these indignities despite its surrogates regularly harming US interests. 

Bruised, battered and defeated, Kim Il-sung’s regime decided on stealth and an uncompromising attitude against its adversaries from the beginning. In one way, the Kim dynasty personifies the quest for an Asian power with socialist characteristics to challenge the global monopoly of the select few. Thus, its defiance of US power and consequent international pariah status are a function of its approach to national security.

The Kim dynasty has learnt from watching other countries. Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan suffer at the discretion of the US. But Pakistan, a nuclear weapons state, has never been subject to these indignities despite its surrogates regularly harming US interests. So North Korea pursued the nuclear option with single-minded focus and achieved its objective around the time Barack Obama inaugurated his presidency. It is now a member of the nuclear club and, as such, untouchable.

Pyongyang secretly sought Soviet help for its nuclear programme at Yongbyon as early as 1959. In 1969, Chinese intelligence confirmed its nuclear aspirations. Growing international pressure forced North Korea to join the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1974 and sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1985. It decided to walk away in 1993 but a year later, in 1994, signed the “Agreed Framework” with the Clinton administration, which ended the first North Korean nuclear crisis by freezing its nuclear weapons programmes in return for fuel and normal political and economic relations. The agreement was more a tactic to buy time to ensure regime collapse than a diplomatic deal. North Korea’s collapse is a key objective of every US president since Harry Truman.

By the time President George W. Bush realised Kim Jong-il needed closer attention than Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Pyongyang had thrown out the international inspectors in early 2003 and, in full view of US spy satellites, took the last steps needed to convert spent reactor fuel into material for six to eight bombs. Since then, Pyongyang has been dangling the bomb from its holster and daring the US to touch it. In October 2006, it detonated a nuclear device with an estimated explosive force of less than one kiloton. It has also carried out extensive tests for long-range missiles to deliver nuclear warheads as far away as the US (9,500 km to Los Angeles) with mixed results. In any case, former US undersecretary for arms control and international security Robert Joseph’s strategy of “tailored containment”, practised by Clinton and Bush is a failure.

Although it turned out later that Pyongyang’s test was the prototype of a lab test rather than a bomb, the second Kim sent out the message that he possessed enough materials and technology to teach a terrorist group how to make at least a crude bomb. This dire possibility persuaded Washington to seek a diplomatic solution. By that time, though, things had got infinitely more complicated.

At various times it has been in illicit collaboration with other nations for nuclear expertise, including Pakistan and Iran. At the moment, however, it seems to be quite alone. Even China has taken a step back and called out Pyongyang’s belligerence. The regime retorted that China is dancing to the tune of the US. This is the first time that such hard words are being exchanged.

A stinging editorial by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on May 4, immediately after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s US visit, said “One must clearly understand that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s line of access to nukes for the existence and development of the country can neither be changed nor shaken and that the DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is as precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship.”

China got the message and responded that “China’s position on developing friendly, good-neighborly relations with North Korea is also consistent and clear.”

Although it seems to have come off second best in these exchanges China’s close ties with Kim’s regime make it indispensable to any resolution of this crisis. North Korea’s nonchalant conduct of seven missile tests from the start of the year, including a claimed intercontinental missile test with the capacity to carry nuclear warheads, has set off frantic alarm bells in Washington and the neighbourhood.

US concerns are both strategic and material. It maintains its largest overseas armed contingent in Japan, a massive 39,000 troops, within easy range of North Korean missiles. In addition, it has 23,500 troops in South Korea. An unpredictable, unfriendly nuclear power in the region is thus a real headache. In April, President Trump mistakenly announced that the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was heading towards North Korea with the explicit aim of deterring the regime’s threats to America and its allies. Kim Jong-un accused the US and its allies of consistently attempting a coup against his government and threatened a fearsome response against his neighbour.

Indeed, over the past three years a covert war over the missile programme has broken out between North Korea and the US. The Trump administration has adopted a hardline stance. In March, it deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles. In a Reuters interview in April Trump said “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.”

China immediately protested that the deployment was a threat to its security. And at the Belt and Road Forum (New Silk Road projects) in Beijing last month Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that while the Russian Federation is “categorically against the expansion of the club of nuclear states, including through the Korean peninsula, intimidating (North Korea) is unacceptable.”

Trump understands that bringing North Korea to heel with bluster and threats is more difficult than a missile strike against Syria. But the US has to do something about North Korea, which is openly threatening US interests in and outside Asia. The White House assessment concludes that there is an urgent need to check the country. Otherwise, in four years it could have the ability to reach the US with a nuclear missile. As part of this exercise, Trump is seeking crippling Chinese sanctions. The administration made it clear Chinese readiness was “a test of the relationship”. Trump even warned that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”

That is probably rhetoric as China can stall any solution that does not meet its approval. There are few dissenting voices in the region. Its rise as an economic superpower has everyone queuing up for the kowtow. In September 2016, the Philippines won its case in the South China Sea dispute before the tribunal set up by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. But President Rodrigo Duterte not only refused to lock horns, he personally received visiting Chinese warships. Trump has now dropped the idea of challenging China’s de facto claim on the South China Sea.

For India, this new development spells bad news. The Trump-Xi bromance could mean that the US is not interested in India as a player in checkmating China. Even Russia, Delhi’s old and reliable friend, seems to be a little colder these days. Pakistan, ever aligned with China, is now busy getting closer to Russia. It is also an old friend of North Korea with whom it has cooperated extensively on the development of nuclear technologies and missile programmes.

Pakistan established economic relations with North Korea in 1970 and strong security ties after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s visit to Pyongyang in 1976. Relations blossomed in the 1990s when Pakistan was under pressure because of its own nuclear programme and relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At this time, the US was warming to China after the chill that fell in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square 1989. Therefore, Beijing denied a Pakistani request for M-11 missiles. That moved Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to acquire Rodong long-range missile systems from Pyongyang. In exchange, North Korea sought nuclear technology.

Pakistan has remained a frontline ally of the US in its war on terror, but continued to keep up with North Korea. In 2002, US intelligence confirmed that the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, Abdul Qadir Khan, had transferred nuclear technology and exported gas centrifuges to help North Korea enrich uranium to bomb grade. There was a global uproar over its role in facilitating rough nuclear proliferation. The US initiated a major diplomatic showdown but Islamabad steadfastly backed Khan.

Since then it has reduced cooperation, but Pakistan has refused to join UN efforts to isolate North Korea diplomatically. Although some Pakistani private and military companies offer shipping service to North Korea, the last regular cargo route between the two was suspended in 2010. North Korea maintains its embassy in Islamabad and a consulate in Karachi.

Pakistan’s cooperation with Pyongyang stems from its relations with China, which has used the country as a cutout to export military hardware to North Korea without risking its own relationship with the US. Pakistan has no choice here. If the Nawaz Sharif government balks, China may not defend Pakistan’s nuclear track record which could lead to denial of membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In addition, severing ties with North Korea means endorsement of Khan’s 2011 allegation that “Pakistani army provided North Korea with nuclear materials in exchange for a $3 million bribe.”

For nearly half a century, Pakistan brushed off international criticism over its relations with North Korea. In 2017, as the dynamic in Asia changes with Russia and China again cosying up, Pakistan finally stands to gain. In the past couple of years, precisely from mid-2015, Russia has significantly altered its engagement with India to accommodate Pakistani interests.

Russia stood with India during the five wars with Pakistan (four in 1947, 1965, 1971, 1999) and China (in 1962). India’s relations with Russia date back to 1630, when Indian traders went to Astrakhan to establish a trading colony. Successive Russian Tsars offered physical and material protection to the Indian community from any danger.

The four-century-old relationship is now facing challenges. Foreign analysts think this is collateral damage from Russia’s broader game against the US where Pakistan is acting as a Russian proxy, which merits some return, even if it is meagre. But even a small Russian favour to Pakistan is a diplomatic setback for India.

Former KGB spy and Russian diplomat Zamir N. Kabulov and Tariq Fatemi, former special assistant on foreign affairs to Nawaz Sharif were the architects of this thaw, which is becoming a growing headache for India. Trump’s “America First” policy has created a vacuum in global leadership. That has encouraged Putin to be more expansive, with China in company. One of the results is warmer regard for Pakistan and a case of chills for India.

Putin’s team has tracked Washingon’s Asia policy closely. Since Trump’s inauguration, Russia and China have noted the absence of a South Asia expert like Strobe Talbot, Richard Armitage or Nisha Biswal in previous administrations. The Trump administration has also dropped South Asia as a foreign policy priority. Therefore, the Sino-Russian entry into the troubled region, whether it is Afghanistan, Kashmir or Indo-Pak relations, is no more than the exploitation of natural diplomatic opportunity for the two countries.

Russia aspires to regain a foothold in Afghanistan and be an arbiter on Kashmir, an issue afflicting India and Pakistan for 70 years. Its mediation was crucial to disputes between India and Pakistan. The Tashkent Pact after the 1965 Indo-Pak war is testimony to that. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto travelled to Russia to get the release of his more than 90,000 prisoners of war from India after the liberation of Bangladesh (1971).

In the 1990s, when Pakistan was under the US radar and the Clinton administration was on the verge of declaring it “a terrorist sponsor” Russia stopped mediating between the two. Putin’s last effort at mediation was in 2002, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Gen Pervez Musharraf refused to talk. Fifteen years later he is again trying to take advantage of an indifferent US leadership to orient South Asia towards Eurasia rather than the West.

The Kabulov doctrine advocates a reorientation of Russian relations with Pakistan and China, purportedly not at the cost of India. But Kabulov does argue that as India is siding too much with the US, France and their like, traditional rivals of Russia, Moscow should pay India in the same coin. He highlighted the contradictions in Indian policy, for instance, to facilitate production of the F-16 which Lockheed Martin sells to Pakistan to target India. Friendship, it seems, depends on national interest, in line with the 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston’s “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” It is a better theme for the India-Russia-Pakistan-China quadrangle. India is poised at a challenging crossroads.

A full assessment of India’s scorecard has not been made, but prime facie, it seems to be in negative territory. India is hanging on to language of the official Russian document released in November 2016 titled “Foreign Policy Concept of Russia”. It says Russia’s ties with India are based on mutual trust and historical friendship, rooted in the “shared foreign policy priorities, historical friendship and deep mutual trust, as well as strengthening cooperation on urgent international issues and enhancing mutually beneficial bilateral ties in all areas, primarily in trade and economy, with a focus on implementing long-term cooperation programmes approved by the two countries.” The paper identified Pakistan as one of the last redoubts of Islamic militants.

But within six months of the release, on May 14, Putin attended China’s global coming-out party, the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, where 29 heads of state and representatives of over 100 countries were present. President Xi informed the audience that “The world should reject protectionism, embrace globalisation and pull together like a skein of geese.”

The Belt and Road Forum (BRF), also known as One Belt One Road, Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is part of Xi’s 2013 initiative. The BRI imagines a US$1.3 trillion Chinese-led investment programme in six land corridors and one maritime Silk Road as its components. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship programme. China claims the initiative will usher in a new era of trade and development. The “modern Silk Road” project envisions “pipelines and a port in Pakistan”, “bridges in Bangladesh” and “railways to Russia”.

Russian participation, even against the backdrop of an assurance that it is not investing in CPEC, should worry India. Not only Russia but British, French, Turkish and other European delegations descended on Beijing for the BRF. Even the US sent a delegation. Pakistan sent an entire political corps including Nawaz Sharif, chief ministers of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunwa, Sindh and Balochistan and half a dozen ministers to embrace CPEC at the summit.

At one point, it looked like India, with its avowed disapproval of CPEC for transgressing Indian sovereignty by running the road through the heart of Jammu and Kashmir, would be isolated. But the European Union dealt a blow when it refused unanimously to endorse a statement prepared by Beijing to mark the end of the summit, citing China’s lack of commitment to social and environmental sustainability and transparency. The other reason privately cited by EU leaders is the presence of Putin and leaders from Central Asian kleptocracies as well as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who have dubious human rights records.

With its colossal wealth and industrial capacity China seems a natural candidate for superpower status. The bald displays of economic power through BRF projects coupled with its growing military capacity are cited as some of the marks of a superpower. But it is still considered a global outpost of poverty and one of the most opaque countries for business. Beijing successfully advertised the BRF initiative as the most important diplomatic event of the year but Xi’s global outreach faced challenge from the EU on the same stage where it conducted the BRF event.

Although no country would want a faceoff with China on any issue, it has successfully portrayed this as acceptance by the world of its superpower status. While India summarily refused to participate in CPEC, Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May declined to travel to Beijing. Coupled with the EU’s refusal to endorse the initiative it is too early for China to pronounce BRF as the final test of superpower status. Moreover, there is widespread suspicion that the project may be a Chinese ploy to shift excess industrial capacity to third world countries and draw poorer nations into its economic trap.

Nevertheless, America will have to depend on China to resolve the North Korea conundrum, which would increase its leverage at India’s cost. The growing Russia-China-Pakistan partnership is another ominous sign. All three offer various degrees of support to the aspirations of North Korea, and Russia is a part of the six-country group on North Korea. China’s Kashmir stand is no secret and if Russia too changes its position that may spell renewed trouble on the road to a durable solution on Kashmir. In a subtle message, Russia kept quiet while China opposed the US, Britain and France co-sponsoring of Security Council resolution 1267 by India. The Chinese blocked India’s move to sanction Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar by freezing his assets and subjecting him to a travel ban. This is the first instance in 70 years of Russia looking the other way in a matter that concerned India’s security interests.

India has employed an entire corps of foreign policy experts and military strategists to reverse this trend. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Russia later this month is against the backdrop of a diplomatic squabble between the two on Russia’s role in pressuring China to desist from anti-India rhetoric, especially over its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and sanctions against terrorists from Pakistan. Russia has told India that it annoyed China by inviting the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh and to expect China to give India concessions is unreal.

On the surface, considering its economic backbone, India’s position as a global player is robust. But on a range of issues, from a UNSC seat to NSG membership, passing of UNSC resolution 1267 to strategic ties with Russia, there are problems. Only time will tell if these are holdovers from the communist era or the price of complacency. In the meantime, India’s reputation faces serious tests.

As a country India is neither proactive nor reactive. But it has a tremendous capacity to absorb setbacks and recover from them. Even if the present times are not the best to advance regional interests, the internal mechanisms are strong and human capital will reverse the situation sooner than later.