Getting serious about the NorthJudging from the initial international reaction to Pyongyang’s nuclear test on Feb. 12, it may be that China and other countries are finally becoming more serious about taking action to impose a cost on North Korea for its dangerous provocations. President Obama called the test a “serious threat.” In Beijing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that China “resolutely opposes” the test, which was conducted, “despite universal opposition.”
The Global Times, which may be a harbinger of official attitudes in Beijing, editorialized beforehand that “if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, it must be prepared for a reduction of aid.” Given that Beijing is estimated to provide over 70 percent of North Korea’s food and fuel, this is a potentially serious threat. The UN Security Council also took a faster and tougher stance than usual, issuing a statement promising to begin work “immediately” to follow up on its commitment in January that there would be “significant action” in the event of a nuclear test.
On the other hand, there are other signs that key actors are not planning to take more than incremental steps. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice was reported to have muttered, “We’ll go through the usual drill,” while anonymous Chinese Foreign Ministry sources were quick to emphasize to Japanese and other journalists that Beijing must balance its interests between South Korea, the United States and the North and will engage in “fine tuning” of policy. All of this is reminiscent of the scene in the movie Casablanca when the cynical Vichy French police chief tries to appease his Nazi overseers by ordering his men to “round up the usual suspects” after a crime.
This time should be different, however. It is not enough to “round up the usual suspects” or “fine tune” the response to North Korea. There appears to be a new debate in Beijing about North Korea, which defied China and conducted the test as Xi Jinping prepares to take the helm (during the Lunar New Year, no less). It will be critical for Seoul and Washington to demonstrate that we do not see this as business as usual. The message for China needs four parts:
First, North Korea has crossed a new threshold. The North Koreans themselves claimed this was a successful test using a smaller miniaturized device, a brazen admission that it is a weapon. It may take some time to do the forensics on the test, but judging from the seismic activity, it is likely that the yield was closer to the 12.5-kiloton blast that destroyed Hiroshima than the very low yield from the two previous North Korean tests. This test presents a destructive weapon that cannot be ignored. Moreover, if forensics show that the test was uranium-based, North Korea may be positioned to produce about one bomb per year and hide that arsenal, since uranium enrichment is much more difficult to detect than plutonium reprocessing from satellites or airborne sensors. When North Korea begins to have a nuclear arsenal of dozens of weapons, it has many more options for coercion. Some experts say North Korea would be suicidal to use a nuclear weapon, but it would not be suicidal for Pyongyang to threaten to use or transfer weapons as blackmail to achieve other aims detrimental to our common security.
Second, China has the greatest ability to limit the threat posed by North Korea’s actions. Therefore, the other members of the Security Council, together with the South, should push Beijing to support a binding Chapter 7 resolution that expands sanctions and targets assets outside of North Korea. China must play a new role by curtailing economic and energy assistance and - more importantly perhaps - helping the international community interdict and freeze North Korean assets and proliferation activities.
Third, the South and other like-minded states should be clear that they will intensify efforts to freeze North Korean assets and interdict North Korean proliferation beyond the decisions of the UN Security Council itself. This could involve a coalition of the willing that will search every North Korean flagged vessel or vessel or plane that has departed from the North; application of Section 311 of the U.S. Patriot Act to block global banking activities by North Korean entities; and possibly a freeze on any new business activities in the Kaesong industrial park or the Mount Kumgang project (which provides cash to the regime). If it appears that the United States and the South are only willing to go as far as UN Security Council resolution, then we will end up with a much weaker resolution in the end.
Fourth, it should be clear that the other parties in the six party talks are not opposed to dialogue, but first there must be a five party meeting (excluding North Korea) to determine a joint approach in any subsequent dialogue with Pyongyang. In addition, it must be made clear that all sanctions continue regardless of talks, until such time as there are verified (not promised) steps at dismantlement of nuclear capability.
Anything short of a formulation like the four points above will only encourage the “usual drill” by Beijing. The point here is not to isolate China for the sake of isolating China. Quite the opposite - the point is to make it clear that China is itself at a turning point in terms of demonstrating that it will use its leverage to reduce the threat North Korea poses to us all.
Beijing remains anxious about instability or regime collapse and since the spate of confrontations in 2010-11 over territorial issues, cyber attacks, and the “pivot” to Asia, many in Beijing appear to view every security issue in U.S.-China relations as zero-sum; meaning if it is good for Washington, it must be bad for Beijing. Seoul therefore has a particular opportunity to set the expectations for Beijing and to show initiative.
*The author is a senior vice president for Asia and a Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
by Michael J. Green