North Korea out of focusU.S. President Barack Obama has officially started his second term as the chief executive of the world’s most powerful country. But the mood in Washington, DC, is still transitional. The president has not finished filling his cabinet and presidential offices. The Senate is still conducting confirmation hearings on his nominees. It may be awhile until the new Obama administration gets around to realigning policies on Korean affairs along with the policy makers who see them through.
I was in New York and Washington, DC, last week. North Korea is about to detonate a nuclear device any day but the United States remains generally uninterested. Americans were entirely engrossed with the Super Bowl championship. Immigration reform and gun control regulations dominated the political agenda. The escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula only grasped the attention of policy makers, experts and journalists on Korean and security affairs.
Last week’s confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel, nominee for Defense Secretary, focused on the former Republican senator’s commitment to Israel and Iran. During the eight-hour session, Israel came up 178 times and Iran 169 times. North Korea was mentioned three times. North Korea is way ahead in its nuclear weapons program, but a potential threat to Israel from Iran is far closer to the hearts of American politicians who rely on Jewish votes.
One congressional official said that North Korea could raise a stir with its new nuclear test, but it would soon be forgotten. Some North Korea experts in Washington are actually looking forward a follow-up nuclear test to get a better idea of what the country is capable of in weaponizing nuclear material.
Officials on the United Nations Security Council are also expecting North Korea’s nuclear test, a follow-up to tests in 2006 and 2009. Pyongyang has started saber-rattling threats of “high profile” retaliations for the latest China-backed resolution and sanctions from the Security Council following the North’s successful rocket launch in December ,which the international community deemed a disguised test of a long-range missile.
The UN Security Council warned of “significant action” but what it does will likely fall short of deterring Pyongyang from testing a nuclear device. The new provocative move by Pyongyang will likely lead to another Security Council meeting, but discussions won’t produce anything more than a strengthening or expanding of existing sanctions. An staffer of the U.S representative at the United Nations said that diplomats are well aware that sanctions alone cannot deter North Korea. Sanctions only buy time until diplomatic activities bear fruit.
The panel of the Security Council that keeps watch on compliance and enforcement of its resolutions also admits the limits to sanctions. Despite the binding force of Resolutions 1718 and 1874, only 93 countries out of 193 UN members reported on their commitments to the regulations. North Korea has become a peripheral problem for American citizens and politicians and international sanctions aimed to contain its arms trade and funding for weapons program are poorly administered. North Korea meanwhile has gotten increasingly brazen with its weapons program.
After interviews with officials at the State and Defense departments, the UN and Korea experts in various think tanks, I concluded that we must regard the North Korean nuclear problem in a larger context. We need not raise a hoopla every time North Korea threatens or follows through with military provocations. That’s what Pyongyang aims at - getting South Korea and the international community all worked up and then forcing them to play by its rules. Even if it has nuclear weapons, nothing is fundamentally changed. North Korea is not a nuclear state as recognized by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
The scenario of North Koreans pushing a button to fire rockets with nuclear warheads capable of bombing South Korea, Japan and the U.S. so far remains fictional. The day North Korea makes its fiction a reality, it may be wiped off the world map. The program to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is primarily to defend and sustain the dynastic rule of the Kim family.
Both the U.S. and China do not want another war on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing, which wants to keep the Pyongyang regime intact, and Washington, which seeks to denuclearize the region, may disagree in many areas, but they completely agree that they cannot chance a military clash. A third nuclear test could, in fact, bring the new leadership of the U.S. and China closer. The two may sit down and come up with a settlement on the North Korea nuclear issue since the six-party multinational platform lost its purpose long ago.
It’s important to note that dovish senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are becoming Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. Distance has been apparent between Beijing and Pyongyang since young leader Kim Jong-un succeeded to power. China’s state media is advising Beijing to curtail aid to North Korea if Pyongyang goes ahead with a nuclear test. Incoming President Park Geun-hye should step up coordination with Washington and Beijing so that Seoul can have a say in geopolitical and regional developments amid changing moods from the two powers.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok