Blowing up assumptions
North Korea’s fourth nuclear explosion should not have been a surprise.
We should no longer be trying to explain these tests in terms of external signaling, internal political crises or bargaining leverage. It is surprising that analysts are still asking “What does Kim Jong-un want?” The answer should be obvious by now: The Kim regime has a longstanding and unyielding commitment to the deployment of deliverable nuclear weapons capable of deterring but also blackmailing and coercing the other states in the region. This goal is indispensable to regime survival. We will come to learn more about how significant this test was in terms of moving Pyongyang towards that goal.
We will also discover how badly this test blew up three assumptions that have been holding together North Korea policy in recent years.
The biggest casualty of the nuclear test has been the Barack Obama administration’s declared policy of “strategic patience.” In 2009, the administration was right to avoid investing too much political capital in negotiations with a regime that was demonstrably uninterested in abandoning its nuclear weapons programs or even rolling them back to the September 2005 joint statement of the six-party talks. However, the administration never offered an alternative to inaction. The administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to curb the North’s nuclear ambitions with the agreed framework and six-party talks, but “strategic patience” has been a non-policy at the moment of greatest danger from the North’s weapons programs.
Second, Pyongyang probably just blew a huge hole in Seoul’s assumptions about China. Until now, South Korea’s courtship of Beijing has contributed to a markedly different Chinese stance towards North Korea in terms of protocol. President Park Geun-hye has held multiple summits in Seoul and Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping, while Kim Jong-un has been ostracized by Chinese leaders.
This contrast has been stunning, given the Cold War history of the Korean Peninsula. Yet these protocol slights have not been underpinned by any change in China’s material support for the Kim regime. It appears that Kim Jong-un can withstand Chinese insults and does not worry about China threatening his actual rule. We will see what Beijing does in the coming days, but it is likely that Chinese fear of regime instability in the North will still trump Chinese anger over Pyongyang’s brazenness. If so, the Blue House will really have to question how much traction can be gained with Beijing on the North Korea problem absent a willingness by Seoul to take tougher steps with allies and partners on its own.
Third, the North’s test will probably blow up the credibility of the UN Security Council. This test ?like other missile tests and provocations before it - clearly violates a series of UN Security Council resolutions. Our governments have believed that there was great value in isolating North Korea by achieving a unanimous vote condemning and sanctioning the North in the Security Council, but the cost of that consensus has always been weakly designed and implemented sanctions. It is likely that the Security Council will again unanimously condemn Pyongyang’s violation of previous resolutions and may offer new sanctions - but will they be real or simply more symbolic moves?
Real sanctions would involve interdiction of North Korean shipping and air routes for mandatory inspections. This would slow the North’s program and exact a price in terms of catching Pyongyang’s illicit and other activities - as we saw when Tokyo cut off or inspected North Korean ships leaving Japan. However, North Korea would likely react furiously to such sanctions. Knowing this, Beijing will avoid them. Washington, in turn, might then return to the familiar pattern of accepting weak sanctions in order to maintain consensus on the Security Council - something sought not only to isolate North Korea but also to facilitate great power cooperation on other problems like Syria. It would be better to proceed with a coalition of the willing and thus put pressure on Beijing and Moscow to do more - but that high tension strategy seems unlikely and will remain so until North Korea is a higher priority than it is today.
At the end of the famous movie “Casablanca,” the cynical Vichy French police chief covers up Humphrey Bogart’s murder of the top German officer by ordering the police to “round up the usual suspects.” The Vichy French officer has no intention of taking real action, of course, but needs to appear to be doing something. The international community’s response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests is increasingly looking the same - “round up the usual UN Security Council resolution.” There is indignation, condemnation and then a sense of return to normalcy. The diplomatic pattern appears very cyclical and even oddly reassuring. Yet this is not a cyclical pattern; it is linear. Each of these four tests has moved North Korea closer to an extremely dangerous threat that in turn makes pressure on the North harder and options more limited.
*The author is senior vice president for the Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and
an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green