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The “Outstanding Leader” Vows Strong Action: Back to the Future in North Korea

Just as the international community was beginning to enjoy a new sense of optimism about North Korea following the ascension to power of Kim Jong-un, last week we were unceremoniously brought back to an old script. Pyongyang launches a long-range rocket; the United Nations condemns it and imposes further sanctions on the recluse country; and North Korea threatens to carry out a new nuclear test.

In the latest episode of this saga, North Korea’s National Defence Commission (NDC) stated on January 23 that its nuclear weapons program was no longer negotiable. The NDC also indicated, in a clear departure from previous North Korean statements, that its rocket programme had a military purpose: to target and strike the U.S., described as the arch-enemy of the Korean people.   To demonstrate further its determination to adopt a tough stance vis-à-vis the U.S. and its allies, North Korea declared on January 25 that its landmark 1992 agreement with South Korea on eliminating nuclear weapons from the peninsula was now invalid.

Washington’s policy of “strategic patience” vis-à-vis North Korea does not appear to have yielded any significant benefits, and is likely to come under closer scrutiny in light of the recent developments.

Pyongyang’s comments came as the U.S. reiterated its policy of punishing North Korea for moving toward the development of long-range missiles tipped with a nuclear warhead. In this instance, Washington effectively led a diplomatic campaign that resulted in a unanimous Security Council resolution adopted on January 22. The resolution tightened existing sanctions and condemned Pyongyang’s December 12 rocket launching, depicting it as a violation of previous UN resolutions on North Korea.

Determining North Korea’s intentions is a notoriously challenging and imprecise science. Indeed, it may eventually transpire that the bellicose statement issued by the country’s highest military body was another outburst by an insecure, starving country seeking to secure more aid from the West (a cycle President Obama had vowed to break). After all, history teaches us that Pyongyang’s public declarations often become more inflammatory at times when Washington is focusing its attention elsewhere. Furthermore, if the past is any indication, North Korea’s threats of war are overblown.

All the same, the chances that Pyongyang will conduct another nuclear test are high. Indeed, , reports from both the U.S. and South Korea in recent weeks have described renewed activity at North Korea’s nuclear test sites, sparking concerns that Pyongyang could already be in the process of preparing for a new nuclear test. Although it is not the first time North Korea is adopting such strident rhetoric, its posture poses a direct challenge to President Obama as he starts his second term, and to Park Geun-hye, who will be sworn in as president of South Korea next month.

There had been hopes that Mr. Kim (the “Outstanding Leader”, according to the North Korea state media), who was educated in Switzerland and is reported to have made some minor economic reforms, might be willing to compromise with the West in exchange for economic aid.  The threats issued a few days ago, however, seem to indicate that he is more likely to promote the types of policies and practices enacted by his father, Kim Jong-il. On the surface, at least, the latest rocket test and the aggressive discourse articulated by North Korea suggest that the country’s new leader might have decided that confrontation with the West could prove a more successful strategy for retaining power than a serious attempt at profound (and inevitably difficult) economic reforms.

Pyongyang may have calculated (partly based on past experience) that even if a nuclear test is met with strong international condemnation, it may still be able to re-engage with the outside world once the dust has settled. Still, the latest developments cast fresh doubt on the idea that by keeping the door open for dialogue with North Korea,  the international community—and particularly the U.S.—can create the conditions needed for the eventual dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. So far, it looks like Pyongyang is determined to keep and continue building its nuclear weapons. This poses a difficult challenge to the Obama administration at a time when it was probably hoping to focus its major diplomatic efforts on other fronts, including on restraining Iran’s nuclear program.

Washington’s policy of “strategic patience” vis-à-vis North Korea does not appear to have yielded any significant benefits, and is likely to come under closer scrutiny in light of the recent developments. “Strategic patience” was to a significant degree based on the assumption that a power struggle was going on in North Korea, and that the regime was destined to crumble.   Opponents of this approach are likely to argue that it is now clear that the strategy is deeply flawed, and that it is time to resume earlier efforts to negotiate curbs on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

One positive aspect of the recent sabre-rattling incident is that Beijing supported the latest Security Council Resolution (which prompted North Korea to denounce China as well as Russia as countries that had failed to come to their senses). The Chinese support for the Security Council resolution is important, not least because so far North Korea has been able to mitigate some of the economic effects of international sanctions through trade with China (the North’s only diplomatic ally and its biggest trading partner). If—and this is a big “if”—the Chinese support for the Security Council resolution were to mark the start of new chapter in diplomatic relations—one involving more coordination between China and the West (particularly the U.S.) on North Korea—it could make the North Korean leader think twice before pursuing the type of rhetoric and policies that are currently causing so much concern in international circles.

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