It’s incredibly dangerous territory, in which every word and action must be consideredby Emil Dall / March 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
Yesterday’s failed test by North Korea, in which a missile apparently exploded seconds after its launch, is likely to be only a temporary setback for leader Kim Jong-un. With every test, whether failed or successful, North Korea learns something new. The regime’s nuclear and missile tests have become more frequent and increasingly advanced, demonstrating its ability to circumvent sanctions. On 18th March, it tested a new high-performance rocket engine which many believe is another step towards developing a long-range missile capable of targeting the west coast of the United States. Earlier this month, it conducted a simultaneous test of four missiles which the North Korea expert Jeffrey Lewis described as preparation for “a nuclear first strike.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has therefore warned that all options—including military action—are now on the table. On his recent inaugural visit to Asia, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and declared a new era of co-operation between the two countries to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Could a step away from old policies, paired with renewed co-operation with China, be the key for President Donald Trump in dealing with North Korea? Maybe. But it may also complicate the situation further.
While president, Barack Obama pursued a policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea. His administration refused to engage in direct negotiations with its leadership, imposed strict sanctions against the country to curtail its operations, and worked to bolster the missile defence capabilities of East Asian allies.
Despite this approach, North Korea appears undeterred and President Trump is entering incredibly dangerous territory. Trump needs to demonstrate continued US strength in the region to assure East Asian allies who feel increasingly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear capability. At the same time, his administration needs to manage the fragile security situation and ensure that it does not deteriorate to the point of disaster. Any talk of military action will only escalate tensions further and put the North Korean regime on edge.
Kim Jong-un’s survival strategy depends on having a credible nuclear capability to deter the US from pursuing military action. Failing that, Kim may turn to his nuclear arsenal as a method of last resort. For the US, every word must therefore be considered and every action calibrated, to ensure that military resolve is communicated without provoking an unwanted reaction from the North Koreans. The reverse situation is of course also true: it will be up to President Trump to respond to any imminent threat to the US or its allies.
It has often been argued that China holds the key to ensuring the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Successive US administrations have called on China to use its influence over the North Korean regime and have criticised Beijing for not strictly enforcing international sanctions. This makes sense given China’s historically close diplomatic and economic ties with its neighbour, but rarely have real results been achieved.
China, however, believes that any progress towards a denuclearised peninsula depends on the US. The day after Tillerson’s visit, a spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged Washington to return to the negotiating table, a request that Beijing has repeatedly made in the past. It has also consistently objected to the deployment of US missile defence systems to South Korea, which China perceives as threatening to its security interests. While China is concerned about a nuclear North Korea, it is just as concerned about a heavy US military presence in the region. Several obstacles therefore complicate a truly co-operative security relationship between the two capitals.
One should also question how much influence China truly holds over North Korea. A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies revealed that there has been a considerable drop in diplomatic exchanges between China and North Korea during the Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping era, and the two leaders have yet to conduct an official summit. Further, earlier this year when China suspended coal imports from North Korea, a significant income source for the regime, the North Korean state news service accused its once-close friend of “dancing to the tune of the US.”
China is finding itself in an increasingly difficult position. Beijing understands that North Korea’s recent uptick in provocative behaviour risks compromising regional stability. However, the Chinese leadership also knows that any interference on its part may prove counterproductive, especially if North Korea attributes such interference to US objectives.
Therefore, while Tillerson’s visit to the region was critically important, it will be difficult for the new administration to overcome the inherent challenges in dealing with North Korea. The US is right to reconsider previously failed policies, but it must do so with an appreciation of the limitations and the fragile security situation within which it operates.