North Korea will follow up its threats with military action, says Christoph Pohlmann of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Seoul. What does that mean for the situation on the Korean peninsula?
DW: Mr. Pohlmann, North Korea has been making threats relentlessly for weeks: first, the announcement to conduct further nuclear tests this year; then the threat of nuclear war against the United States; and now scrapping the ceasefire agreement with South Korea. To what extent, in your view, has the conflict reached a new, even more dangerous, level of escalation with these recent developments?
Christoph Pohlmann: We could say that the conflict has reached a new level of escalation, which can also be seen in terms of military incidents. That's because North Korea cannot only keep threatening without following these threats with action. That is, we can actually assume that North Korea will act militarily in some form.
What form could this take?
It could be what we already know and have just seen over the last few weeks and months: further missile tests, possibly also with other types of rockets, or even more nuclear tests. It could possibly also include direct military provocations on water or land, for example in the form of artillery fire on a South Korean island or along the demilitarized zone between North and South.
The North Korean news agency KCNA announced, in its famously bellicose rhetoric, that relations between north and south had crossed the danger line to such an extent that they could no longer be repaired, and that the situation on the Korean peninsula is now so dangerous that a nuclear war could break out. How do you evaluate this?
This is, of course, rhetorically unacceptable and in South Korea it is met with complete incomprehension but also concern. At the same time, North Korea must know that in the event of a nuclear attack there would be a nuclear retaliation from the US side. The South Korean government stressed this again today. This is something we actually must assume. That means: something like that would basically be suicide, and that - all observers are convinced - is something the North Korean regime is not interested in.
The KCNA's "point of no return" has not been reached, then.
As to "hitting a sensitive spot": That is precisely the intent of the strengthened sanctions the UN Security Council imposed against North Korea on Thursday. They are the toughest sanctions in the recent history of the most powerful UN body. How effective is this package of sanctions, in your view? How much will it hit the regime in Pyongyang?
The symbolic meaning alone already makes these penalties quite significant. It's a package of sanctions that consists of financial penalties but also the monitoring of transport routes. And it also directly affects business people who conduct business in North Korea. On the one hand, these sanctions are significant, otherwise North Korea would not respond so aggressively to them. On the other hand, their implementation depends crucially on China. China has indeed supported these sanctions - as it did with the last ones against the missile test - much to the annoyance of North Korea. So far, however, Beijing has been - to put it diplomatically - half-hearted in the enforcement of sanctions. As a direct neighbor of North Korea, as the country that handles about 70 percent of North Korea's foreign trade, China of course has the key role in these sanctions.
Is this latest tightening of sanctions, supported by China, an indication of a general rethinking on the part of Beijing?
I do not see this as a fundamental rethinking in which China would also be willing to abandon North Korea. But it is already the case that the Chinese leadership's patience with North Korea, as well as that of experts and the general public, is slowly running out. While there are different factions, including those who do not wish to threaten the stability of the North Korean regime and who definitely want to keep North Korea engaged - as a buffer against the United States, for example - it is already the case that China is very angry about the behavior of North Korea.
In the meantime, there are worries because the behavior of North Korea is no longer predictable and seems to be becoming more extreme, so that the Chinese want to signal to the young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that this behavior has now simply gone too far. And at the same time [China] wants to present itself more strongly than in the recent past as a responsible member of the international community.
At present, do you see ways to break the increasingly aggressive cycle of action and reaction - and if so where?
There could be options in my view. The problem is that neither side seems to have been willing to take that step so far. At present, military-political logic prevails, which consists of escalating further and further with no side signaling any form of compromise, because that could be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Therefore, for example, the US is conducting its large-scale military exercises this week and next, to which North Korea has again responded with other maneuvers.
One possibility would be that the United States, if possible together with China, could present a kind of negotiation proposal as to how to get out of this spiral of escalation: a proposal that also offers North Korea incentives, which would be difficult in the current situation where North Korea is always provoking. But in my opinion there is no other way, because the danger is too large that there could be miscalculations on both sides resulting in a possibly uncontrollable escalation of the situation. That means it is imperative that one of the sides - and at the moment that would preferably be the stronger sides, the US and China - approach the North Koreans, preferably jointly, and try to dissuade them from their course whether openly or through informal channels.
Christoph Pohlmann heads the Seoul office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.