A curious dynamic has seized the world in the past week concerning the latest iteration of North Korea’s ongoing game of blackmail by brinkmanship. The North, a failed state by any definition, regularly trots out ridiculous threats against everyone around it – threats which would surely result in its own rapid destruction if they were carried out (though many lives would be lost on all sides, to be sure). It relies on a carefully cultivated sense that it is not quite rational. The international community rushes in to provide incentives to persuade Pyongyang to back down, which it pockets and then ratchets up the pressure again after a while to extract more.
The latest round of all this is regarded as particularly important in that a new leader is trying his hand at the game, after we had hoped he might be different from his father and grandfather before him. He has gone somewhat further than his predecessors in terms of threats and bluster and it is not clear if he has left himself an off-ramp. The world’s media have rushed to the scene to cover the “crisis.”
Reports have now surfaced that at least one arm of America’s sprawling intelligence empire believes that the North may have miniaturized a nuclear warhead to fit on a missile – though the reliability of such a weapon would be doubtful and America’s other intelligence agencies do not agree with this assessment. Notably, the report was deliberately leaked by a Senator known to be a proponent of increased spending on missile defences.
We are now faced with a situation in which the consensus of the chattering class seems to be gelling around the idea that the North will test a missile at some point in the next few days – which would be seen as a particularly dangerous provocation. But they’ve tested missiles before. While we don’t much like it, these tests don’t threaten anyone, so long as they go out to sea. Somehow, if they test now, however, it will take the crisis to new levels. Why?
Everyone needs to calm down. If the North wants to shoot a missile into the sea; let it. So long as it does not threaten land, in which case the U.S. and the targeted country will undoubtedly try to intercept it, a missile shot is not worth trying to head off by cravenly crawling to Pyongyang with offers of more assistance – that would only beget another crisis somewhere down the line.
More broadly, a need exists to re-think how we approach this troublesome international outlier. Hopes that the new Kim will prove to be a reformer must now be dashed. He is young and we will have to live with him for many years, until the regime comes crashing down from its own internal problems. Time to set some parameters as to what he can expect to get away with.
Key to this is China. For many years Beijing has propped up the North as a buffer to the U.S. and a hedge against a reunified and increasingly powerful Korea on its doorstep. The Chinese have no desire for a resumption of war on the Korean peninsula. But they have been quite happy with a slightly unsettled situation which bogs the U.S. down in a costly standoff. So long as it doesn’t get too hot, which would just invite the U.S. to send more weaponry into the region (something China does not want), the situation whereby everyone is kept slightly off-balance by the antics of North Korea has suited China fine.
Beijing must now be wondering if it is all still worth it. It seems clear the U.S. and South Korea are determined to get off the treadmill of provocation-reward-provocation that has sustained the North. The North’s actions are now being cited to justify the U.S. “pivot” of its forces to Asia – which upsets China very much. The South Koreans are talking about acquiring the full nuclear fuel cycle (and with it the theoretical ability to one day make a weapon) as a possible hedge against the North. The Japanese are also looking to their defences with renewed vigour over this, and other problems with China. None of this can make China’s leaders happy.
When this “crisis” fades, and it will, it would be a good thing if these countries, and the rest of the international community besides, made clear to Beijing that enough is enough. It either has the ability to discipline the North, and bring it into a productive discussion to reduce tensions in the region, or it doesn’t – in which case the region’s states, and the U.S. will look to their defences in ways China won’t like.
Peter Jones is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is also an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.