Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis
For North Korea, reeling under severe United Nations sanctions, conducting missile tests has become a regular expression of political defiance and technological progress.
Just last year, showing its continuing contempt for UN resolutions, it tested at least two-dozen missiles, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Yet its first missile test since Donald Trump became U.S. President has been speciously portrayed as a major challenge to the United States and its allies.
The fact is that the latest test did not involve a long-range ballistic missile, which North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had said in his New Year's Day speech was almost ready for launch. The fired missile, which travelled 500 kilometres, was just a medium-range type that Pyongyang has tested multiple times.
And although North Korea said the test involved a new missile model with a solid-fuel-powered engine – a technological advance that facilitates mobility and rapid launch – this is not the country's first solid-fuelled missile. As Pyongyang admits, the new surface-to-surface missile is based on its solid-fuelled submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Lost in the alarmism over the new missile is the fact that the test occurred just after Mr. Trump called North Korea a threat. Mr. Kim had been on good behaviour ever since the election, hoping that the new U.S. President would adopt a fresh tack, in keeping with what Mr. Trump had said during the campaign – that he would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader over a hamburger.
The debate on how to punish North Korea for breaching UN resolutions should not obscure the larger issues involved. Three key matters stand out.
Firstly, the sanctions-only approach toward North Korea has been a conspicuous failure, encouraging Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile programs. With little to lose, North Korea has responded to heavy sanctions by testing nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016. It has also considerably enhanced its missile capabilities, though they remain subregionally confined in range. In the North Korean case, the sanctions-only approach has done exactly the opposite of its intended goal. Far from deterring, slapping additional sanctions after every major test has had the effect of egging North Korea on.
Secondly, Mr. Kim has repeatedly signalled that he wants his internationally isolated country to escape from the clutches of China. Significantly, he has not visited China since assuming power in 2011, although paying obeisance in Beijing was customary for his father and grandfather, who ruled before him. Yet, oddly, Washington has attempted to push Mr. Kim closer to China, instead of seizing on the opportunity created by his desire to unlock frozen ties with the United States.
Chinese and U.S. interests fundamentally diverge on North Korea. Beijing values North Korea as a buffer state and does not want the regime to collapse: A reunified and resurgent North Korea allied with Washington will open a new threat, including bringing U.S. troops to China's border. Although China is already putting the squeeze on North Korea since last year's nuclear tests, its enforcement of UN sanctions, though in a controlled way, has failed to change Mr. Kim's calculus.
Thirdly, the United States has no credible military option against North Korea. Any military strikes to degrade the North's nuclear and missile capabilities will provoke Pyongyang to unleash a powerful artillery barrage against the South, triggering a full-fledged war involving the United States. The planned U.S. deployment in South Korea of the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD – which has never been battle tested – is no real answer to North Korea's nuclearization or to the North's artillery chokehold on Seoul.
If there is any credible U.S. option to deal with Pyongyang, it is to give diplomacy a chance, with the goal of forging a peace treaty with the North to formally end the Korean War – officially just in a ceasefire since 1953. Denuclearization should be integral to the terms of such a peace treaty. But if denuclearization is made the sole purpose of engagement with the North, diplomacy will not succeed. Barack Obama's administration refused to talk unless Pyongyang first pledged to denuclearize. The North's only leverage is the nuclear card, which it will not surrender without securing a comprehensive peace deal.
When repeated rounds of tight sanctions not only fail to achieve their objectives but counterproductively trigger opposite effects, a new approach becomes inescapable. Through a carrot-and-stick approach of easing some sanctions and keeping more biting ones in place, diplomacy can, by persisting with what will be difficult and tough negotiations, clinch a deal to end one of the world's longest-lingering conflicts and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.