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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Like the unwelcomed skunk at the garden party, Kim Jong Un just blasted his way into the post-Paris American national security debate by carrying out a fourth nuclear test. Whether or not the test proves to be hydrogen, as Kim claims, or only hydrogen-lite, as most experts contend based upon analysis of the preliminary seismic results, Kim Jong Un has made his point. Kim is no shrinking violet to be ignored despite such pressing issues as ISIS, Syria, Afghanistan and the South China Sea. And as Pyongyang inches ever closer from being only an A-bomb to an H-bomb power, the State Department official stance that “we will not accept (North Korea) as a nuclear state” appears to be increasingly feeble and wishful thinking.
Kim, unlike the Iranian leaders whom the average American cannot name, is well-known, partly due to the killing of his uncle two years ago and partly due to the notorious Sony film The Interview, which led to the infamous hacking incident. The Young General, whom South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper noted “sported new plastic-framed glasses and his signature shaved-sides haircut” during his recent New Year’s address to the nation, is a caricature of the typical James Bond international villain. (The fact that his much-oppressed fellow countrymen reportedly had to memorize word-for-word the text of his almost thirty-minute New Year’s speech, which again threatened war, only adds to the allure of his dark side.)
Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton could be pointedly asked in any future debate why she can have such confidence in the Iran deal when the North Koreans once pulled the wool over her husband’s eyes
It would appear quite likely that Kim Jong Un and North Korea’s latest provocations will be a subject of discussion at the next GOP presidential candidates’ debate, set to be held in Charleston, South Carolina on January 14. Both the press and the audience will likely wait with bated breath for any verbal depiction of the North Korean leader by candidate Donald Trump. And one might expect linkage by the GOP candidates of the failed North Korean nuclear negotiations to the Obama Administration’s Iran nuclear deal. Specifically, how one can trust Tehran when one could not trust Pyongyang? Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton could be pointedly asked in any future debate why she can have such confidence in the Iran deal when the North Koreans once pulled the wool over her husband’s eyes by agreeing to the Clinton Administration’s Agreed Framework nuclear deal while surreptitiously pursuing a second path to a nuclear bomb via highly enriched uranium.
One would expect that pending sanctions legislation directed at North Korea in the American Congress may get a new lease on life, given the desire of House members and senators up for re-election to demonstrate to voters a “get-tough on Pyongyang” attitude. Former House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and current Chairman Ed Royce, in particular, has long contended with justification, based upon the findings of a 2006 House staff delegation visit to Macau, that previous financial sanctions against North Korea were never given time to take full effect. The Chinese banking industry, in particular, at that time was beginning to move away from servicing North Korean financial assets. The premature 2007 George W. Bush Administration decision to unfreeze North Korean funds in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, based on meeting a North Korean pre-condition for moving forward nuclear negotiations which ultimately failed, upset the whole sanctions applecart. Perhaps Ros-Lehtinen’s North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Nonrecognition Act of 2015 and/or Royce’s North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015, both of which failed to pass in previous Congresses, or similar pieces of legislation in the Senate put forward by Senator Cory Gardner and Senator Robert Menendez can now gain some traction.
Further fall-out from Kim’s latest brinkmanship, no doubt, will be a further delay of reported long-term plans for him to get on the road to China. Beijing, Pyongyang’s last official ally on the world stage – the Russians pulled back on any formal defense commitments during the Yeltsin era – should be getting used to being publicly slapped in the face by Northeast Asia’s proverbial Peck’s bad boy. Unlike his father and grandfather, who made periodic visits to consult with North Korea’s closest ally, Kim Jong Un has been sidelined by China while his South Korean rival, President Park Geun-hye, has twice visited Beijing. Park also has reportedly developed a warm personal relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his spouse during repeated encounters, including in Seoul and at international summits.
Beijing’s Foreign Ministry, not unexpectedly, gave a frosty official response to its out-of-control ally’s latest nuclear antics by noting that it had “no advance knowledge of any test” and “firmly opposed” Pyongyang’s actions. The Ministry added that it would work with the international community on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Previous official putdowns of petulant Pyongyang by China’s mandarins have, however, had minimal effect, as have all previous UN Security Council resolutions. One thing seems quite certain: Beijing’s pipe dream of a near-term revival of the long stalled Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s denuclearization seems as elusive a goal as ever.
Finally, there are unconfirmed reports that some in Seoul are even suggesting a return of American tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula to meet the escalating North Korean nuclear threat – something not seen since former President George H.W. Bush quietly removed them in 1991. This seems a highly unlikely scenario given President Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world as outlined in his Prague speech – which North Korea greeted at the time with a rocket launch. Unfortunately, however, for the world at large and for American security, the proliferation of nuclear weapons seems to be moving decidedly in the opposite direction from what President Obama envisioned in that 2009 speech.
Will a nuclear arms race in the Middle East lead to a Sunni-Shiite nuclear showdown with Israel caught in the middle? Will a nuclear-armed North Korea, which expert David Albright estimated in a CNN interview last year could already have “10 to 15 nuclear weapons,” lead to South Korea, Japan, and possibly even Taiwan, feeling a need to develop a defensive nuclear arsenal? Will Pyongyang link its latest nuclear test to further long-range missile tests, as it did in 2006, 2009 and 2012-13? Whatever further nuclear secrets Kim Jong Un has up his sleeve, he has, definitely left his mark on the new year of 2016.