Pyongyang's missile test could herald the president's first foreign policy crisis—with difficult consequences for the UNby Andrew Hammond / July 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
On Saturday, North Korea conducted its second intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test within a month. With the ICBMs apparently having the range to reach Alaska and potentially other US states on the country’s Western seaboard, the reclusive Pyongyang regime has dramatically raised the stakes in the intensifying foreign policy stand-off in the peninsula.
With the US homeland looking increasingly vulnerable, Donald Trump could soon be facing into his first major international crisis, fighting Pyongyang’s opposition to what the regime termed “beast-like US imperialists.”
The Trump team already is considering new unilateral sanctions against North Korea, and has been leading a charge in the UN Security Council to secure support for intensified international sanctions too. Coinciding with this, the United States and South Korea conducted their latest test on Sunday of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. Condemned by North Korea, China and Russia, THAAD is being deployed by Washington in South Korea as a means to potentially intercept missiles launched by Pyongyang.
Recent US rhetoric has given Beijing heightened concerns that Trump might now be thinking, much more seriously, about a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. Earlier this month, Trump asserted that North Korea “is behaving in a very dangerous manner, and something will have to be done about it … and probably dealt with rapidly.”
Trump has acknowledged China can play a potentially very constructive role in seeking a diplomatic solution, but has expressed exasperation that it is not doing more to pressurise the regime in Pyongyang. In a tweet on Saturday, for instance, the US president asserted that “I am very disappointed in China…Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet … they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.”
I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
…they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
While Washington’s next steps are not crystal clear, it looks increasingly likely that the two decades’ long US policy of “strategic patience” towards Pyongyang may now be over, with all options on the table. Aside from military force, scenarios range—at the dovish end of the spectrum—from a new round of peace talks, to more hawkish actions like interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korea weapons abroad, one of the regime’s key sources of income.
The possibility of new US measures, alongside recent US rhetoric is one reason why Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li has asserted that “China’s priority now is to flash the red light and apply the break to both [the US and North Korean] trains” to avoid a collision. It is not just Beijing, but also Moscow, which is concerned that the tensions on the peninsula could spiral out of control.
Both nations believe that tensions on the Korean peninsula have no easy resolution. And they are grappling with how best to respond to not just the regular missile launches by Pyongyang, but also its nuclear tests, while trying to rein in the United States and South Korea, too.
To this end, both Moscow and Beijing have indicated support for a UN Security Council initiative that would build on the UN vote last year to tighten some sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test. The UN measure favoured by them would require the United States and South Korea to halt military drills and deployment of THAAD. China vehemently opposes that system, which it fears could be used for US espionage on its activities as much as for targeting North Korean missiles.
Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov shares this concern, and asserts that THAAD is a “destabilising factor…in line with the vicious logic of creating a global missile shield.” He also warned that it also undermined “the existing military balance in the region.”
This proposed Chinese-Russia UN initiative would also put further pressure on North Korea to stop its missile and nuclear testing.
However, unlike Washington, Beijing has been reluctant to take more comprehensive, sweeping measures against its erstwhile ally.
To be sure, China has taken some actions, including banning all coal imports into North Korea in February. However, it is unlikely to squeeze its neighbour too hard, fearing that too much pressure on the regime could lead to it becoming significantly destabilised.
If the Communist regime in Pyongyang falls it could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party—its regional ally—too. In addition, Beijing fears that the collapse of order in North Korea could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, a potentially large influx of refugees that it would need to manage, and, ultimately, the possible emergence of a pro-US successor nation.
Washington and Beijing will be seeking to manage their differences on these issues, and try to agree the best route forward in the UN Security Council. In these conversations, the Trump team has the support of not just South Korea and Japan—which want to see new sanctions imposed quickly on North Korea—but also potentially the United Kingdom and France, too.
Ultimately, tensions will only rise further in the Korean peninsula following the latest ICBM test. Trump may soon face into his first major foreign policy crisis—and need to make some big decisions on how to tackle Pyongyang’s provocations very quickly.