We are approaching a moment of truth in how to respond to North Korea, with war or peace hanging in the balance. “Enough is enough,” an exasperated Nikki Haley, US Representative to the United Nations, summed up accumulating US frustration over the unprecedented, game-changing North Korean provocations.
In the span of less than a week, Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido, tested what it claimed to be a hydrogen bomb, and reportedly prepares for another intercontinental ballistic missile test. Even before the latest 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. Despite near universal condemnation of Pyongyang’s tests from the United States, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, the consensus may end there.
The United States, along with Japan and South Korea, are seeking to toughen UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, which currently ban the export of coal, a range of minerals and seafood. The United States, already imposing 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 labourers – mainly in Russia and China and a major source of hard currency – and a cutoff of oil supplies, most of which come from China.
However, in a joint statement at the BRICS Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin “deplored” the nuclear test while emphasising that the crisis “should only be settled through peaceful means and direct dialogue.” The declaration added: “we condemn military interventions, economic sanctions and arbitrary use of unilateral coercive measures…”
Despite Beijing and Moscow’s call for dialogue, it’s increasingly clear that North Korea has no interest in talks on denuclearisation. In a speech at a recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, Pyongyang’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was blunt: “We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on [the] negotiating table.”
Still, Beijing expresses scepticism about more extensive sanctions, as captured in a recent editorial in Global Times, a daily owned by the Communist Party that often previews official thinking: “We should avoid resorting to rash and extreme means by imposing a full embargo on North Korea.” Earlier this year, the newspaper had suggested if North Korea conducted a sixth nuclear test, China would consider cutting at least some oil supplies.
Though Beijing shares the US opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and repeated calls for denuclearisation, its fear of instability on the border carries higher priority. China’s mild response was particularly striking, as Pyongyang’s nuclear test was a clear affront, coming just as Xi was about to deliver a major speech at the China-hosted BRICS summit. As he needs to project strength in gearing up for the October 19 Party Congress, he seems more comfortable being humiliated by Pyongyang than being pressured into cooperation by Washington.
Like Trump’s repeated threatening tweets, Beijing’s mild response to an incorrigible North Korea raises the question whether Kim Jong Un has concluded that the world’s two largest militaries are both paper tigers and feels emboldened to act with impunity. Kim’s cockiness, combined with Trump’s impulsiveness, significantly raises the risk of miscalculation.
The US continues to emphasise that “all options are on the table” and Defence Secretary James Mattis warned after the hydrogen-weapon test that while the United States doesn’t seek “total annihilation” of North Korea, “any threat to the US, its territories like the Pacific island of Guam, or… 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 within North Korean artillery and missile range – including more than 100,000 US citizens in greater Seoul on any given day – any military conflict would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands. In the United States, a “preemptive” strike is bandied about. But given that the US doesn’t know the tunnels, mountains or other hiding places for many of Kim’s mobile missiles, or the exact number of nuclear weapons or location of uranium-enrichment facilities, it’s likely that US military action could destroy only 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 fear that North Korea, if put in a corner, might lash out in a “use it or lose” situation. An oil embargo on Japan in the 1930s was among the reasons Tokyo attacked Pearl Harbour. On the other hand, comprehensive sanctions, as were applied to Iran, have not yet been tried in the case of North Korea. It’s possible that economic disruption could produce a change in their behaviour. If true, however, this would take time to play out – at least nine or even 12 months.
The timing factor is crucial. Kim appears to be 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 United States. Several possible scenarios, explain why, ranging from the extremely terrible to the catastrophic.
The most benign scenario is that once Kim has the ability to hold US cities hostage, North Korea and the United States will live with a state of mutual deterrence and containment. But if the United States 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, similar to Pakistan, with sanctions lifted. A darker scenario is that once Pyongyang has a reliable ICBM, it will seek to intimidate the United States off the Korean Peninsula, breaking the US-South Korean alliance with a threat of limited nuclear war and then seeking to coerce South Korea into reunification on Kim’s terms.
Such scenarios pose potentially painful choices for both the United States and China, ones that could transform Northeast Asia. If the United States accepts North Korea as a nuclear state with ICBM capability, the reliability of US extended deterrence nuclear umbrellas for both South Korea and Japan may be in doubt: Seoul and Tokyo may no longer see US guarantees as credible if Kim forces the question as to whether Washington would 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 to disrupt a $650 billion annual trade relationship with China, Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea is a key metric for the already troubled US-China relationship: the issue will either underpin more cooperative bilateral ties or become a major irritant and source of growing distrust.
Northeast Asia’s future is at stake. The best hope is that, as occurred with Iran, China and the United States cooperate on comprehensive sanctions that can influence Kim’s calculus and behavior.
This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.