The North Korean leadership has to be overjoyed with the international reaction to the country’s fourth nuclear test, carried out just one week into 2016. Not only did the test result in North Korea featuring prominently in the foreign policy section of subsequent Democratic and Republican presidential debates, but it has also successfully driven a wedge between China and the United States at a time when ties between Pyongyang and Beijing were clearly showing signs of strain. This despite the fact that the magnitude of the fourth test was not significantly different from the one that the country conducted three years previous, and therefore seemingly achieved little besides reinforcing the notion that the North Korean leadership is recalcitrant and difficult to deal with.
Given the overreaction from the governments of both the United States and South Korea, however, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Kim regime’s claims of successfully testing an H-bomb had not been thoroughly discredited within hours of the blast. But say this much for Kim Jong Un: he’s found a way to finally bring the warring factions of the United States Congress together. In a nearly unanimous show of bipartisanship, Congress passed a bill imposing new sanctions on North Korea, which President Obama signed into law last week. Members of Congress presumably could go home feeling content that they had done something about North Korea’s belligerence.
… the United States government risks further inflaming the situation and playing right into the hands of the much-maligned North Korean leader
A closer look at reality casts doubt on the wisdom of imposing unilateral American sanctions, however. Unlike Iran, which served as the model for these sanctions, North Korea is isolated from the global economy. Whereas the interconnected nature of the Iranian economy enabled the Treasury Department to apply pressure to the mullahs in Teheran by sanctioning Western banks such as HSBC of the UK and BNP Paribas of France, North Korea conducts roughly 80 percent of its foreign trade and receives a similar amount of its foreign investment from just one country: China. By authorizing Treasury to take the gloves off and aggressively target Chinese companies, which experts say could extend to the Bank of China itself, the United States government risks further inflaming the situation and playing right into the hands of the much-maligned North Korean leader. Indeed, the reaction of the Chinese government to the new American sanctions does not bode well for the kind of coordinated regional approach necessary for altering North Korea’s pattern of provocation.
If Kim Jong Un brought the matches and Congress responded with the striking board, the South Korean government decided to come right out with a gas can. Shortly after the North Koreans followed up the nuclear test by launching a satellite of a few weeks later – these things have a tendency to come in pairs – President Park Geun-hye announced the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex on the grounds that the $100 million operation was helping to finance the North’s weapons development. While it is undoubtedly true that some of the profits were being funneled back into the nuclear and missile programs, leading North Korea researchers have argued that the KIC’s closing will do more harm than good by depriving 50,000 North Koreans of their daily exposure to the South Korean economic system, severing an intelligence resource for South Korean security services, and removing the last vestige of inter-Korean cooperation that had originally been put in place during the Sunshine Policy.
Park didn’t stop there, however. In a move bound to further increase tensions between China and the United States, she signaled her intention to press ahead with long stalled plans for THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) deployment, despite doubts over the system’s utility to South Korea. The Chinese government reacted to this announcement with almost as much anger as it did to the North’s nuclear test, implying that the real purpose of THAAD is to contain China rather than to provide protection for South Korea. In a sad display of what can happen to a person after years of trying to work with North Korean leaders, the one-time proponent of trustpolitik then closed out the trifecta by giving a rather unhinged speech in which she sounded more like one of her counterparts in Pyongyang rather than the leader of what is ostensibly one of Asia’s leading democracies.
The point here is not to absolve North Korean behavior or give the leadership a free pass for yet again defying long-standing UN resolutions. However, it is a matter of recognizing the strategic priorities of the parties involved in order to come up with a coordinated response for addressing the issue. Until Chinese fears of a refugee crisis or the presence of American troops in North Korean territory following a collapse of the country are adequately addressed, there is little incentive for government leaders to exert the kind of economic pressure that would cause the North Korean leadership to shift course. At the same time, the Xi government has shown some willingness to get tough on North Korea, most notably when the activities of Chinese financial institutions with the country were severely limited following the 2013 nuclear test. The Chinese were also rumored to have been instrumental in preventing a fourth nuclear test in 2014. Tellingly, these actions came during a high point of U.S.-China relations, and when unilateral American sanctions were not being seriously considered.
The Chinese also seem to have a better grasp on the intentions of the North Korean leadership than the hysterics in the United States who warn that the mainland could eventually come under threat from long range missiles and miniaturized nuclear weapons. Why a regime that has spent most of its existence in a desperate bid to maintain survival would commit the one act guaranteeing its own demise is a question to which significantly less time has been devoted. Perhaps this is because the main motivators for ongoing nuclear weapons development, namely deterrent from an American attack (reinforced from the lessons of Libya) and enhanced domestic credibility are less useful for portraying Kim Jong Un as a reckless lunatic with a hair-trigger.
Rather than acknowledge these realities and continuing to pursue patient diplomacy, however, the United States government has given into cynicism by signaling its intent to aggressively pursue and sanction Chinese companies, while at the same time scolding Beijing for not doing enough to prevent North Korean provocations. For its part, the Park administration, which should be doing much more to find common ground between the two superpowers, has instead unequivocally thrown in its lot with the United States in pursuit of a containment policy that will make cooperation with China even less likely. All the while, development of North Korea’s nuclear program will continue to progress unabated. Even a madman couldn’t have wished for a more fortuitous outcome.
The North Korean leadership has to be overjoyed with the international reaction to the country’s fourth nuclear test, carried out just one week into 2016. Not only did the test result in North Korea featuring prominently in the foreign policy section of subsequent Democratic and Republican presidential debates, but it has also successfully driven a wedge between China and the United States at a
Geoffrey Fattig is a graduate student at UC San Diego's School of International Relations/Pacific Studies. His research interests include South Korean media and freedom of expression, as well as North-South relations. He has previously written for Foreign Policy in Focus and Global Voices Online.