On September 18th, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the U.N General Assembly.
The topic of discussion was North Korea’s recent nuclear test, following the hermit kingdom’s fifth and most powerful test to date. The sense of urgency was palpable, as weapons experts predict that by the end of year, Pyongyang will have enough fissile material for about 20 nuclear bombs.
The UN meeting led to an official statement of condemnation from all three nations on Sunday. The officials emphasized that North Korea’s test would not go unanswered, with Kerry boasting that the US would not hesitate in “rolling back the provocative, reckless behavior” of North Korea.
Calling for a return to denuclearization talks, Kerry went on to add that the three nations, supported by the global community, would “make it clear to a reckless dictator that all he is doing through his actions is isolating his country, isolating his people and depriving his people of genuine economic opportunity.”
But for all its feel-good bluster, neither leader seemed to have a secret card up their sleeves to coax North Korea into ramping down its reckless behavior.
What’s more, apart from conducting underground nuclear tests, Pyongyang has been steadily gnawing away at the ties between the Washington, Seoul and Tokyo by playing the three allies against each other over so-called “comfort women”.
After the U.S. brokered a historic agreement between South Korea and Japan in December, whereby Japan offered a new official apology and established an $8 million fund to offer reparations to survivors, Pyongyang scorned the deal, decrying it as a “humiliating” capitulation on the part of South Korea.
Next, Chong Dae Hyup, a South Korean organization with alleged connections to North Korea, echoed the statements and started a crusade to stop the implementation of the agreement. Some Korean groups even went so far as to produce a Change.Org petition calling on Obama to fire U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, for negotiating the comfort women agreement.
North Korea’s ploys seem to be having an impact, with Park Geun-hye’s administration, up for re-election in 2017, keeping largely mum in the face of the campaign, and even endorsing some of its demands.
Earlier in September, Park refused to remove a statue symbolizing Japan’s wartime acts that is located just across the street from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, despite the two countries officially burying the hatchet of war.
These sideshow distractions serve to both foster mistrust between these two countries who threaten to present a united front against Pyongyang, and to divert attention from the North’s own dismal human rights record. Maintaining a common ground among the allies is now more important than ever to curtail North Korea’s ambitions.
The case for sanctions
While sanctions have failed to change policies when tried in the past on countries such as Cuba, Iran or Russia, North Korea’s shoddy economic situation situation makes it a prime target for a more aggressive push. With limited economic ties to the rest of the world, North Korea wouldn’t be able to wiggle its way out the way cold-war era Cuba or Iran did. The sole outlier and the only nation that has to be brought on board is China. While Beijing certainly has an interest in stopping North Korea’s nuclear program, a complete breaking off of relations is not likely an appealing prospect to Chinese leadership.
The two nations have longstanding historical ties, and China now serves as North Korea’s sole remaining patron as the rest of the world increasingly stands firmly against Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship.
However, it is also in China’s interest to prevent North Korea from gaining full nuclear capability, and to maintain their own relationship with the global community. If North Korea’s most important trade partner agreed to sanctions, the results could be disastrous for the regime.
The current sanctions against North Korea are relatively mild compared with the sanctions that had been imposed against Iran and others. Pyongyang’s economy is being kept afloat through the so-called “livelihood exception” that allows the country to export substantial quantities of coal and iron as long as the proceeds don’t flow towards the nuclear program.
But since North Korean companies are allowed to self-declare by just filling out a form, it’s virtually impossible to monitor the way trade money is used. The exception was inserted at Beijing’s request in UN Resolution 2270, thereby rendering toothless the entire sanctions regime.
However, even Beijing will arrive at the conclusion that enough is enough. No country can be content having a trigger happy dictatorship on its border, much less one that could start a nuclear war with China’s main trade partners.
It’s just a matter of time then before Beijing comes on board and agrees to a strengthened sanctions regime. Closing diplomatic loopholes and lifting the “livelihood exception” could go a long way to forcing the rogue regime to come back to the negotiating table.
However, with a hostile rogue nation plummeting ever closer towards true nuclear capability, waiting on Beijing to enact sanctions cannot be the only deterrent.
Even more important is maintaining a unified military front to deter further escalation on the Korean peninsula. Cooperation between the three allies – the US, Japan, and South Korea – will be key to strengthening deterrence against Kim Jong Un’s aggression. In particular, an expanded joint naval presence could help enforce sanctions, detect North Korean submarine activity and prevent missile launches. The three countries must make clear to North Korea that escalation and aggression will be met with a proportionate response.
It is important not to mistake the North Korean regime’s recklessness for a lack of cunning.
North Korea has fairly skillfully stoked tensions between the allies best positioned to stand against it, and it will continue to try to do so. A cooperative, multilateral effort will be necessary to prevent the hermit kingdom from further destabilizing the established global peace.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent