Just how much will North Korea benefit from the current instability in the international community?
The Kim Jong-un regime has hit a patch of good luck in its diplomatic landscape. It will not get what it says it wants; that is, a path to a permanent peace agreement with the United States. And it will not succeed in fulfilling its dual-track byungjin policy of nuclear and economic development.
But it will not be punished severely for its latest missile tests on June 22. A number of events taking place around the world have conspired to give North Korea this free pass at the moment.
First, neither the United States nor the U.N. Security Council has the diplomatic capital, especially with China, to expand and tighten sanctions beyond what was painstakingly negotiated in response to the February 2016 test of an alleged hydrogen bomb and the April 2016 launch of a submarine-based missile. Second, with the Brexit crisis, the “international community” will not have the political will or energy to coordinate a coherent response. Third, the topsy-turvy presidential campaigns in the U.S. prevents a clear strategy from emerging in Washington.
The Security Council condemned the June tests as a “grave violation” of five different council resolutions, and there will be efforts to increase and tighten sanctions. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden starkly pressured Beijing to control Pyongyang lest Tokyo decides to go nuclear. But neither the UNSC nor Washington has leverage to push China further. The Chinese themselves are sick and tired of the threatening behavior of the Kim regime, but now that Washington and Seoul are squarely on the path to adopting the American missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD), Beijing can’t hope that further cooperation on North Korea might bring specific diplomatic benefits for China.
From Beijing’s perspective, as long as Pyongyang does not threaten China with nuclear weapons, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is primarily America’s problem. After all, the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal is improving with the aim of targeting the United States mainland, and it is Washington that has to keep its allies, South Korea and Japan, feeling secure. The threat of a nuclear Japan is unrealistic, given that the Japanese public would not support it and their constitution (and the entire post-World War II security arrangement) would have to be overhauled.
Most countries of the European Union, like with China, have formal diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Even if their economic and diplomatic capital with Pyongyang is much lower in volume and value than China’s, European countries have been instrumental in taking the temperature of the changes in North Korea, providing humanitarian assistance, and operating educational and skills-training programs for North Koreans. The United Kingdom, particularly England, has been a major player in this regard. But we are in for a navel-gazing season in Europe as Brits and non-Brits consider what will become of their respective nations and the EU itself and how their jobs, bank accounts and stocks will fare. And, although the EU led the push to bring human rights violations in the DPRK to the attention of the international community and the United Nations, it will not have the political focus or muscle any time soon to play that kind of role.
The Obama administration, despite its desire to achieve palpable progress on its rebalance toward progress on its Asia policy, will have to lean more toward the Atlantic in the coming months than it might have planned. Even with a nuclear DPRK and its traditional Asian allies up in arms, Washington will not be able to divert significant diplomatic and political attention away from the urgency of the ongoing migration crisis in Europe, the economic fallout of Brexit, the existential uncertainty of the EU and the sorely needed efforts at salvaging and strengthening the post-World War II international order that is greatly of its own making.
In short, North Korea will not make it onto the list of urgent priorities global priorities any time soon.
The political circus in the United States over the presidency makes consensus and leadership to achieve it impossible. For now, Asia observers should not fool ourselves or waste precious energy engaging in a guessing game about what kinds of diplomatic carrots and sticks might be effective in preventing Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. Until there is a new American president and a clear line-up of policymakers in place, muddling through with proclamations of “grave violations” and pressures on Beijing (repeated since the time of President George W. Bush) will be the most we can expect.
Once the new U.S. administration is in place, it must undertake a complete, thorough, and accountable assessment of options for a principled and feasible strategy toward North Korea. The DPRK is the only major “rogue state” left that requires Washington’s undivided and sustained attention. We can check off Iraq, Iran, Libya (and Cuba); the list of bona fide enemy countries has been narrowed down to one.
In the meantime, the DPRK can choose either to continue on its warlike path and increase the possibility that a new president and her/his administration may choose a hardline strategy, including military options, against Pyongyang or forgo immediate gratification from nuclear testing and focus instead on the economic development track of its professed byungjin policy. U.S. strategy responses to the latter would benefit North Korean people and the region in the long-run. Choosing the economic track would be a way to ensure that there is a future for North Koreans.
Those of us who want to see Washington forge a serious strategy toward North Korea also need to work hard to convince the new administration, come next winter, to prioritize the DPRK as an urgent item on its foreign policy agenda.
The bottom line is that there is no regional and global consensus on the how dangerous and destabilizing the DPRK is.