Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, February 1, 2013

North Korea, Again

If you recall, on December 12, North Korea launched a long-range rocket. The international community largely saw the launch as a ballistic missile test, something banned by the UN, while Pyongyang claimed it put a satellite in orbit for purely peaceful purposes. Fast forward to last week, for we have new developments.

On January 22, the UN Security Council, including, yes, Russia and China, agreed to Resolution 2087, which, among other things, condemned North Korea for the rocket launch and imposed new sanctions. As expected, North Korea hasn't taken the news very well. Pyongyang has lashed out, issuing strongly worded statements and threats in response to the resolution.

In particular, North Korea has lobbed verbal assaults against the U.S. and South Korea. It has called America its "sworn enemy" and a "hostile power." And regarding South Korea, in a statement, North Korea’s Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea said: “There will be no more discussion on denuclearization between the North and South in the future....If the puppet group of traitors takes a direct part in the UN 'sanctions...the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] will take strong physical counter-measures against it....'Sanctions' mean a war and a declaration of war against us."

This is bellicose and worrisome language, to be sure. And now, satellite images show that North Korea looks to be gearing up for a third nuclear test. Even more concerning, analysts such as Tony Namkung and Jeffrey Lewis worry that a third nuclear test will be more advanced and sophisticated than its previous two (in 2006 and 2009), "in that the latest device could use highly enriched uranium, not the plutonium at the core of previous devices."

Against this backdrop, on Wednesday, South Korea launched its own rocket, the first successful launch in the country's history. Of course, North Korea is angered by the South's actions. Not only does Pyongyang see the launch as provocative, serving to escalate tensions on the peninsula, but it also thinks that it's unfair that South Korea can launch a rocket without the scrutiny and condemnation it receives when performing the same activities.

All of this probably sounds familiar, even if you haven't followed the latest news out of North Korea. First, there's flagrant behavior by the North, followed by international criticism and sanctions, then militant rhetoric from Kim Jong Un and his associates, resulting in raised tensions on the peninsula. You've heard that story before, right? So far, North Norea is following its usual pattern of mischief and producing the same tired outcomes.

Compared to 2006 and 2009, though, there are a few new wrinkles, changing the dynamics of the situation just a bit.

First, South Korea has a new president, Park Geun-hye, the country's first woman president. It's likely that Kim and his gang are testing her, gauging her resolve and approach in dealing with inter-Korean tensions. For now, there are mixed signals coming out of Seoul. On the one hand, Park is seen as a more hardline leader than her predecessor, President Lee Kyung-bak, which triggers worries that the South might aggressively respond to provocative acts from the North. At the same time, though, Park is thought to be a conservative, deliberate and cautious leader; and she's has stated that she wants to engage the North in an effort to deescalate tensions.

Second, given his young age, political inexperience, and short time on the job, Kim likely wants to portray strength and toughness in foreign policy toughness so as to buttress his legitimacy domestically and enhance his and country's image and standing internationally. As stated by Charles Armstrong:

For the past year, the North Korean regime has been focused on internal power consolidation under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. Part of Kim’s legitimacy rests on claims of a robust national defense, including nuclear weapons. North Korea seems determined to be recognized as a nuclear power, something the United States and other countries have said repeatedly is unacceptable.

So where are we at?

Kim Jong Un and his advisers probably won't act too rashly or too aggressively. After all, they have an incentive to rein in their bellicosity before they hit the brink, because any counter-measures from South Korea or America could lead to the downfall of the regime. It's the simple logic of political survival. But still, as the events of 2010 attest, keep in mind that Pyongyang likes to test international redlines, and that kind of behavior will ensure that politics and security on the peninsula and in Asia more generally remain rather rocky.

So in the end, we're left with an unstable and tumultuous stalemate, with the world at loggerheads with Pyongyang. I do agree with Armstrong's assessment: sanctions haven't worked; inducements have only worked slightly better; China is reluctant to enforce sanctions, because it wants to keep North Korea economically alive and functioning and the entire country intact; and North Korea is defiant and highly motivated.

At this point, the best hope is that the world's powers finally begin to understand that not much has really changed in North Korean policymaking--despite a new leader in Pyongyang--and the standoff on the peninsula can go south very, very quickly. Specifically, I hope the latest confrontation provides a kick in the pants to China, that Beijing will wake up to the fact that it can't continue to coddle North Korea and ignore the problems it makes. I also hope this situation prompts Washington to exert its leadership. For while the U.S. has devoted much time, effort, and resources to Asia during Obama's tenure--a part of America's so-called Pivot--the North Korea issue has been almost completely neglected. It's time for Team Obama to get involved and play a productive role here.

One good, concrete step China and the U.S. can take is to take joint leadership in jump-starting the dormant six-party talks. By bringing North Korea to the table, perhaps this would allow Pyongyang to take a step back, reflect, and deescalate its war of words. It could allow for Beijing and Washington to begin the process in earnest of coordinating their approaches to North Korea. If both countries can better align their goals and interests, their preferred stick and carrots, they will be able to put more effective pressure on North Korea. And importantly, this step could also pave the way for a future deal, one that's enforceable and verifiable. Remember, a deal is only going to get done--and that's the goal for the West, a negotiated settlement--once all the heavy diplomatic leg work is done and talks start to gain some momentum. It far past time to for all involved parties to start to lay the foundation for an agreement that tackles all of the thorny issues on the peninsula.

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