North Korea policy dilemmaPyongyang’s unprecedented, game-changing North Korean provocations are forcing a moment of truth in how to respond to North Korea, with war or peace hanging in the balance. “Enough is enough,” was how an exasperated Nikki Haley, U.S. Representative to the UN summed up the accumulating anger and frustration in the U.S. and globally.
In the span of less than a week, Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido, tested what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb, and is reportedly preparing for another ICBM test. Even before the latest wave in the escalating cycle of tension, the war of words between Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric and Kim Jong-un’s one-upping responses had the world on edge. While there was near universal condemnation of Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests from the U.S., China and Russia, ROK and Japan, that appears where the consensus ends.
The U.S., along with Japan and the ROK have toughened UN security Council sanctions against North Korea, which currently ban the export of coal and a range of minerals, as well as seafood. The U.S., ROK and Japan, which has already imposed secondary sanctions against Chinese and other businesses violating UN sanctions, seeks to cut off Pyongyang’s access to hard currency. Washington is calling for an end to North Korean foreign laborers, mainly in Russia and China (an important source of hard currency) and a while if failed to get a total cutoff of oil supplies — the majority of which comes from China — the new UNSC resolution cuts by 50% North Korean imports of refined petroleum products and freezes its current level of oil imports.
However, in a joint statement at the BRICS Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin “deplored” the nuclear test and emphasized that “it should only be settled through peaceful means and direct dialogue.” But the BRICS declaration added, “We condemn military interventions , economic sanctions and arbitrary use of unilateral coercive measures…”
Despite Beijing and Moscow’s call for dialogue, it is increasingly clear that North Korea has no interest in talks on denuclearization — at least not before it gets a working ICBM. In a speech at a recent Asean Regional Forum (ARF) meeting, Pyongyang’s Foreign Minister, Ri Yong-ho was blunt, “We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on [the] negotiating table.”
Though Beijing shares the U.S. opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and repeated calls for denuclearization, it has always placed its fear of instability on its border as a higher priority than getting rid of Korean nuclear weapons. China’s mild response was particularly striking, as Pyongyang’s nuclear test was a clear insult, coming just as Xi Jinping was about to deliver a major speech at a China-hosted BRICS summit. It is curious that as Xi Jinping needs to project strength as he gears up for the October 19th Party Congress, he seems more comfortable being humiliated by Pyongyang than appearing to be pressured into cooperation by Washington.
Like Trump’s repeated threatening tweets, Beijing’s mild response to an incorrigible North Korea raise the question whether Kim Jong-un has concluded that the U.S. and China are both paper tigers and he feels emboldened to act with impunity. This cockiness by Kim, combined with the impulsiveness of Trump significantly raises the risk of miscalculation.
The U.S. continues to emphasize that ”all options are on the table,” and Defense Secretary Mattis warned after the recent nuclear test while the U.S. doesn’t seek “total annihilation” of North Korea, “any threat to the U.S., its territories like the Pacific island of Guam, or its allies would be met with a "massive military response ... both effective and overwhelming."
The game of nuclear chicken is threatening to spin out of control. With 25 million people — including more than 100,000 U.S. citizens in Greater Seoul on any given day — within North Korean artillery and missile range, any military conflict would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands. In the U.S., a “pre-emptive” strike is one bandied about. But given that the U.S. doesn’t know what tunnels and mountains many of Kim’s mobile missiles are hidden, where or exactly how many nuclear weapons there are, or where or how many uranium enrichment facilities there are, it is unlikely that U.S. military action would be able to destroy more than a small part of the North’s missile and nuclear program. Is that a risk worth taking?
But even if the policy of increasing pressure and strangulation of North Korea’s economy were successful, that also poses problems. One reason China is leery of economic suffocation, is a fear that if put in a corner, North Korea might lash out, fearing a “use it or lose” situation. An oil embargo on Japan in the 1930s was one of the reasons Tokyo attacked Pearl Harbor.
On the other hand, comprehensive sanctions, as were applied to Iran, have not been tried yet in the case of North Korea. It is possible that disruption of their economy could produce a change in their behavior. But even if that were true, it would take time to play out — 9, 12, 15 months.
This is a crucial point, as Kim Jong-un appears in a mad rush to obtain an operational ICBM and hydrogen bomb, though with his current missile and nuclear arsenal he has already achieved mutual deterrence with the U.S. There are several possible scenarios to explain why, ranging from the extremely bad to the catastrophic.
The most benign scenario is that once he is able to hold U.S. cities hostage, Kim and the U.S. will live with a state of mutual deterrence and containment. But if the U.S. maintains sanctions and isolation, Kim may threaten war, call for a nuclear and missile freeze, the price being de facto acceptance of Pyongyang as a nuclear state, with sanctions lifted and like Pakistan, treated as a normal nation. A darker scenario is that once Pyongyang has a reliable ICBM, it will seek to intimidate the U.S. off the Korean Peninsula and break the U.S.-RPK alliance with a threat of limited nuclear war — or even some nuclear demonstration, and then seek to coerce the ROK into reunification on Kim’s terms.
All these scenarios pose potentially painful choices for both the U.S. and China, ones that could transform Northeast Asia. If the U.S. accepts North Korea as a nuclear state with an ICBM capability, the reliability of U.S. extended deterrence nuclear umbrellas for both the ROK and Japan may be in doubt: Will Seoul and Tokyo still see U.S. guarantees as credible if Kim forces the question as to whether the U.S. will trade Los Angeles for Seoul?
For China, accepting a defiant nuclear North Korea and only partially implementing sanctions could bring the worst of both worlds. Trump has already threatened to cut off trade with nations doing business with North Korea. Though Trump is highly unlikely disrupt a $650 billion annual trade relationship with China, Beijing’s cooperation with Washington on North Korea is a key metric for the already troubled U.S.-China relationship: It will either underpin more cooperative bilateral ties or become a major irritant and source of growing distrust.
With Northeast Asia’s future at stake, the hope is that, as occurred with Iran, comprehensive sanctions can impact Kim’s calculus and behavior.
(An earlier version of this article appeared on YaleGlobal Online.)
Robert A. Manning
The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012 tweet: @RManning4