Here’s the script accompanied by a lot of bombast, signifying not much.
North Korea launches another missile – its 18th for the year and 80th since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011. This time it travels over Japan itself.
The “international community” expresses outrage. Australia echoes these imprecations – at a distance.
Meanwhile, US-South Korean war games proceed, according to schedule, on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea ignores the threats, and prepares for its next missile launch.
Clearly, a “fire and fury” strategy is not working. The question then becomes: what are the alternatives?
Back in July, the Council on Foreign Relations provided a useful primer. In that post, the author referred to a proposal by Chinese delegates to a US–China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington in June in which they advanced a two-step strategy based on previous remarks by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi.
First, the US would suspend US-South Korean military exercises (the twice-yearly ones now in progress) in exchange for a freeze on North Korean missile development and testing.
Second, China would monitor North Korean compliance. Should North Korea infringe on such an agreement China would withhold economic benefits and security assurances.
In other words, China would have skin in the game – and perhaps, more to the point, risk losing diplomatic face if such a process faltered.
The above approach is not dissimilar from the one the Obama administration adopted in negotiations with Iran over a freeze on its nuclear program.
There was no single “big brother” standing in the wings to exert pressure on Iran. However, the involvement of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany contributed to a satisfactory – far from perfect – outcome. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment program and subject itself to stringent International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has belittled the plan to such an extent that this makes it more difficult to arrive at a similar solution to the North Korean crisis.
Donald Trump himself has described the Iran agreement as the “the dumbest deal … in the history of deal-making”. This criticism is echoed by administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – although the US continues to certify Iran’s compliance each 90 days. Such is the febrile nature of American diplomacy these days.
As things stand, no amount of huffing and puffing by the Trump administration or its allies seems to have much effect on North Korea. The rogue state appears intent on engaging in a game of brinkmanship on an almost-weekly basis, thumbing its nose at round after round of UN sanctions and other measures designed to curb its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.
China has backed the latest round of sanctions and applied some of its own, but it is caught between its perceived obligations as a responsible international stakeholder and its more immediate concerns about stability on the Korean peninsula.
China displays legitimate anxiety about a conflict between the two Koreas spiralling out of control, destabilising East Asia in the process and, no doubt, causing a tidal wave of refugees to cross into China itself.
From China’s perspective, maintaining relative calm on the Korean peninsula is a number-one priority. This leaves aside other considerations like its usefulness to China of a divided Korea as a buffer against a US-Japanese-South Korean security bloc in East Asia.
These are all complex calculations made more so by Kim’s personality. Perhaps even more than his father and grandfather, he appears willing to push the limits of what the rest of the world – including China – might tolerate.
The Kim personality contributes to understandable alarm about risks involved in a game of bluff on the Korean peninsula, given the near-certainty of the annihilation of thousands if conflict erupted. There is no more potentially destructive and volatile corner of the world.
Among challenges for the international community in its dealings with North Korea is that country’s apparent imperviousness to sanctions – or, at least, its ability to withstand what are now four rounds of UN sanctions resolutions since 2006.
The Council on Foreign Relations writer makes the point that unlike oil-dependent Iran – which yielded eventually to international pressures, including sanctions against imports of Iranian crude – North Korea remains adept at exploiting loopholes in a sanctions regime. It lives with its isolation.
Each new round of missile tests, accompanied by further evidence of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, should be prompting a searching review of options beyond hyperbolic threats detached from reality.
What’s required is a new approach that would draw on experience in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. China would be a critical component of such a diplomatic offensive whose aim would be to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program and place limits on its missile development.
The point is that where North Korea is concerned there are no easy options, simply ones that are less bad. Policymakers in the US and among its allies, including principally Japan and South Korea, should be resisting the temptation to grandstand.
The existing approach is not working. A military option does not exist, except in the minds of less rational players.
In any solution, China remains the gatekeeper.