U.S.-China cooperation is key
Today’s Northeast Asia is the perfect place for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to order the fourth nuclear test. Taking advantage of a crescent-shaped siege to contain China from the Korean Peninsula to the Indian Ocean, the United States and Japan are increasingly tightening the siege. In an attempt to break through the containment, China is creating several artificial islands in the South Pacific and building runways on them. Although China claimed territorial waters from those islands, U.S. vessels are frequently traveling to the areas. An accidental clash between the United States and China is possible at any time.
In Northeast Asia, Japan has been keeping China in check in the East China Sea and beyond with its defense policy of collective self-defense supported by Uncle Sam. With the recent settlement between Seoul and Tokyo over the sex slave issue — struck under U.S. President Barack Obama’s pressure on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — Washington has now completed the condition to invite Korea — the missing link — to its regional encirclement against China.
The U.S.-China clash — and the conflict in Syria and Iraq, which has hindered Obama’s foreign policy — were a green light for the North’s young ruler. He ridiculed President Park Geun-hye, Obama and Abe, stabbed Chinese President Xi Jinping in the back and conducted the test, which he claims is the North’s first hydrogen bomb test. Under these circumstances, the international community’s response to Kim’s reckless provocation is obvious. In the short term, the United States and Japan must suspend its hegemony contest with China and cooperate with Beijing to punish Pyongyang.
United Nations Security Council sanctions — though boisterous — were ineffective because China offered the North a “loophole” and the North is well accustomed to its complete isolation from international society. Now, the United States, China and Japan must coordinate their responses. America must freeze Kim’s secret funds with emboldened financial sanctions; Japan must resume its ban on money transfers to the North and stop North Korean vessels and people from entering Japan; and China must stop all financial transactions with the North, including those using personal bank accounts, to maximize the effect of the U.S. financial sanctions.
The fourth nuclear test ordered by Kim is a direct insult to Xi. Expectations were high that the years-old freeze in China-North relations would thaw after Liu Yunshan, the fifth-highest ranking official of Beijing, visited Pyongyang to attend the 70th anniversary celebration of the Workers’ Party last October, and the North recently sent the Moranbong Band to Beijing. But the band abruptly canceled its Beijing performance and returned to Pyongyang, sending bilateral relations back to the days before Liu’s visit.
To make matters worse, the earthquake from the nuclear test reached China. It is not so difficult to imagine the rage of Xi. The Chinese leader must freeze the North’s funds and suspend energy and food supplies to the North if Kim continues to resist. Xi’s personal anger must make a public contribution to maintaining the stability of Northeast Asia. I hope Xi’s dilemma is resolved with a firm conclusion in support of stability in the region.
It is regretful that South Korea has no effective ways to punish the North. Resuming the propaganda broadcasts at the border won’t even make Kim blink. There is no option for Seoul other than sitting at the unappealing table of the UN Security Council to adopt sanctions. What we are concerned about is a serious security threat down the road. Whether the North tested a hydrogen bomb as it claimed or a boosted fission weapon or a miniaturized nuclear warhead, it is clear that the North’s atomic weapons capability has been upgraded.
But nuclear weapons are not meant to be used for war and are more for threats. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union used thousands of nuclear warheads in order to secure the capability of mutually assured destruction to prevent a war. That’s the irony of nuclear weapons. On the Korean Peninsula, the North’s nuclear weapons and U.S. nuclear umbrella will serve as the mutually assured destruction. The emotional reactions and arguments that the South must arm itself with nuclear weapons to counter the North, therefore, is not an appropriate reaction.
The serious threat is the North’s testing of the submarine-launched ballistic missile. If the North has succeeded in developing a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, the South’s “Kill Chain” to take out North Korean missiles would be useless. If the North proves that it has the capability to deploy a submarine carrying a missile with nuclear warheads to the West Coast of the United States, the U.S. unclear umbrella may not guarantee the South’s security. Is there any assurance that America will provide its nuclear umbrella, even risking nuclear attacks on its major cities on the West Coast?
What’s left now are mid- and long-term measures. An organization for the peace of Northeast Asia must be launched to include North Korea. At the same time, the six-party talks must resume to continue dialogue with the North multilaterally and bilaterally. Most of all, relations between Pyongyang and Washington must be normalized to persuade the North that U.S. policy toward the North is not hostile. When we opt for a tit for tat approach, Kim will speed up the development of nuclear, missile and submarine capabilities. Kim has been maximizing the power of the weak — very smartly and slyly.