Tag: pyongyang

Fifth North Korean Nuclear Test May be in the Offing: Now What?

In January North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in the face of universal international protest. Even China, Pyongyang’s one nominal ally, joined in the criticism.

With Beijing’s support the United Nations imposed new sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The U.S. and its allies warned Pyongyang of further isolation if the DPRK continued to flout the will of the international community.

Now the North appears to be preparing another nuclear test. If the DPRK does so no further proof will be needed that the North intends to become a significant nuclear power.

Pyongyang has invested too much to drop the program. Moreover, the North lives the old Henry Kissinger aphorism that even paranoids have enemies. The U.S., backed by the Europeans, has demonstrated its willingness to oust dictators on its “bad” list, even after making a deal with them, such as Moammar Khadafy.

What makes the prospect of another test particularly dramatic is Kim Jong-un’s apparent willingness to proceed at any cost. He can have little doubt that the U.S. will press for additional sanctions. He knows that no other government will defend his regime.

He is aware that after the January test the People’s Republic of China approved tougher international penalties. Every additional DPRK provocation threatens to become the last back-breaking straw for China, leading it to target food and energy aid, which would cause Pyongyang enormous hardship.

What to do when nothing so far has worked?

Trade U.S. Military Exercises for North Korean Nuclear Tests

Whatever the issue and occasion, North Korean ambitions loom large. Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong recently opined that the confrontation between the United States and his nation “will lead to very catastrophic results, not only for the two countries but for the whole entire world as well.”

Actually, most of the world doesn’t much notice the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Nevertheless, everyone would benefit if international relationships involving the DPRK became more normal.

Interviewed by the Associated Press, Ri defended the right of his nation to possess nukes and blamed American hostility for forcing the DPRK to create a nuclear deterrent in self-defense. The latest missile test, he said, gives North Korea “one more means for powerful nuclear attack.”

However, Ri suggested a potential deal between North Korea and the United States: “Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean Peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests.” It’s an idea worth pursuing.

Pyongyang is unlikely to ever agree to fully disarm. It has spent too much developing nuclear weapons. Nukes also offer security against the world’s greatest military power, which has demonstrated a propensity for ousting the regimes of largely defenseless antagonists.

North Korea’s Political Convention May Leave Opportunity for Engagement

America’s political silly season will rush toward a close with the November presidential election. Both party conventions are likely to be lively.

But these spectacles will fall short of the pageantry expected at next month’s communist party congress in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For the first time in 36 years, before current leader Kim Jong-un was born, the Korean Workers Party is gathering.

We still don’t know the exact date that delegates will convene. But North Koreans only just finished a 70-day campaign to prepare for the grand event. In the DPRK appearances are everything.

The masses reportedly are marching as one behind the “Young Marshall.” The regime says the campaign is to “defend the leadership authority” of the KWP and resist the “U.S. imperialists.” At least Kim Jong-un has emphasized economic development; his father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, pushed a “military-first” policy.

The question for the U.S. is why the congress? It is only the seventh in the DPRK’s 68-year-history.

North Korea’s Nuclear Challenge to the West and China

North Korea has grabbed international headlines. Again. Pyongyang staged its 4th nuclear test, supposedly a thermonuclear device.

Proposals for more sanctions and further isolation likely will grow. However, the test dramatically demonstrated that the U.S. attempt to build a cordon sanitaire around the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has failed.

Washington instead should develop a new policy focused on engagement, not denuclearization. The latter should remain an objective, but even if it remains out of reach the U.S. might be able to reduce military threats on the peninsula.

As always, North Korean foreign policy reflects domestic politics. The test also gives Pyongyang greater leverage in its attempt to engage both South Korea and the U.S.

Talks with the Republic of Korea recently ended without result. The North also long has sought to draw the U.S. into bilateral discussions. However, the Obama administration set as a precondition for any talks that Pyongyang take steps toward dismantling its nuclear program, a non-starter.

In dealing with the North there are only second-best options which might ameliorate the threat otherwise posed by a famously enigmatic, persistently paranoid, and potentially unstable nuclear-armed state viewing itself in a perpetual state of war with America and its allies, South Korea and Japan.

Talk to Kim Jong-un Even as He Kills His Way to Power in North Korea

Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Seoul and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will head to Washington later this month. The main agenda item: what to do about North Korea.

As usual, no one knows what is going on in Pyongyang. Its internal politics appears to be bloodier than usual. Ironically, this might provide an opportunity for Washington to initiate talks over a more open bilateral relationship.

The latest rumor is that young dictator Kim Jong-un had his defense minister executed with anti-aircraft fire for disrespectful conduct. Hyon Yong-chol probably has been purged, though South Korea’s intelligence agency acknowledged that it could not confirm his gruesome death. If Hyon was executed, it probably was because the military man was plotting, or at least feared to be plotting, against the North’s leadership.

There has been striking turnover among party and military officials since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011. Most dramatic was the arrest and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, seen as the regime’s number two, in December 2013. Overall some 70 top apparatchiks and more than 400 lower level officials apparently have been killed this year.

This brutality towards the power elite sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather. While Kim Jong-un’s apparent penchant for executions may reflect a peculiarly sadistic nature, it more likely grows out of insecurity. Only 28 or maybe 27 when his father died, Kim’s succession was pushed extremely quickly after his father suffered a stroke in August 2008.

Although there is no sign of organized resistance to the latest Kim, continuing turnover suggests that Kim is not, or at least does not see himself, as yet secure. Instead of cowing resistance, promiscuous executions, even for acts short of actual rebellion, might make subordinates believe it is worth going for broke.

Repression is rising in other ways. For instance, the regime apparently has been employing “Patrol Teams” as press gangs to fill out its construction work force for projects to be finished by October, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. The regime also has strengthened border controls with China.

If Kim retains control, none of this might matter. However, everyone is wary of something other than the usual predictable unpredictability in Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-hye noted “growing concern” over “an extreme reign of terror within North Korea.”

Governance matters since the North continues to expand its nuclear capabilities. While nothing suggests that Kim is suicidal—members of the dynasty appear to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next—Pyongyang’s decision-making process could become more unilateral, unpredictable, or both.

Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do to directly influence events within the DPRK. War would be foolhardy, tougher sanctions aren’t likely to work, and the Kim regime is well beyond the reach of moral suasion.

Nor is negotiation likely to have much effect. While the North recently launched an international charm offensive, it continues to highlight weapons development and spout rehashed threats against America and the South. The Kim regime is not likely trade away the one factor causing the world to follow events in the DPRK.

Nevertheless, as I point out in Forbes, “the possibility of division and dissension in Pyongyang gives Washington a new reason to suggest direct discussions without preconditions, but with the prospect of benefits for a change in direction. If the regime is unsettled, those disaffected might benefit if Washington stood ready to reward a new approach.”

A peace treaty, diplomatic relations, and end of economic sanctions all should be on the table. It’s still a long-shot, but so is almost any other proposal to address the North.

Someday Pyongyang will change. Engagement is the best way to prepare for that day.

How to Respond to North Korea’s Latest Threats

Relations between North Korea and the world are off to a familiar start in 2013. Last week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution tightening sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its missile test last December. The reclusive regime responded by predictably issuing threats against America and its allies. It seems likely now that Kim Jong-un will order a nuclear test in the next few weeks. What will follow? The kabuki dance continues. 

If North Korea does indeed detonate a nuclear device, the United States and its allies should avoid reacting hysterically. As I counseled on the missile test in December, provocative acts by Pyongyang do not deserve a response from Washington. The North carries out these tests to upset its rivals. The White House’s reserved response to the missile test was an encouraging sign. Any nuclear test warrants only an extended yawn. 

But what can Washington do to ultimately prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear program further and force it to engage the international community? I authored a piece running today at the National Interest that provides a few suggestions: 

The United States should not push for renewal of the Six Party talks. The North announced that it would not surrender its nuclear weapons until “the denuclearization of the world is realized.” This may well be yet another negotiating ploy. However, Washington and its allies should take it seriously.

Instead of begging Pyongyang to return to negotiations and requesting China to make Pyongyang return, the administration should indicate its openness to talks but note that they cannot be effective unless North Korea comes ready to deal. No reward should be offered for the North’s return to the table. 

Third, the United States should spur its allies to respond with the only currency which the Kim regime likely understands: military strength. Washington has had troops on the peninsula for nearly 63 years, far longer than necessary. That has left the ROK and Japan dependent on America. They should take over responsibility for dealing with the North’s military threats.

Washington should unilaterally lift treaty restrictions on the range and payload of South Korea’s missiles, a bizarre leftover from Seoul’s time as a helpless American ward. The administration also should indicate its willingness to sell whatever weapons might help the ROK and Japan enhance their ability to deter and even preempt a North Korean attack. The changing security environment should cause Japan to formally revise the restrictions placed on military operations by its post-World War II constitution.

I have a number of other policy recommendations in the full article, which you can find here

Who Should Defuse the Korean Bomb?

Fear of war has become a new constant for the Korean peninsula.  On Monday South Korea initiated a military exercise in the Yellow Sea and North Korea threatened to retaliate.  Seoul went ahead without any response from the North, but the region retains the feel of a bomb with an unstable fuse.

In the short term Washington has no choice but to uphold its alliance obligations to the South.  However, Pyongyang’s increasingly erratic behavior offers a dramatic reminder of the most important cost of the unilateral security guarantee:  the threat of war.

The alliance was created at a different time in a different world—1953, after the conclusion of a war which had devastated the peninsula.  Only U.S. military support preserved South Korea’s independence.  Since then the South has developed economically and is well able to protect itself.  The U.S. should begin turning over defense responsibilities to Seoul, with an expeditious withdrawal of all American troops.  The defense treaty, with America’s promise to forever guard the South, irrespective of circumstance, should be turned into a framework for future cooperation in cases of mutual interest.

The U.S. no longer can afford to maintain Cold War alliances as if the Cold War still existed.  Commitments like that to South Korea are expensive, since they drive America’s military budget.  More important, as we see in Northeast Asia, alliances also increase the possibility of war for the U.S.  It is time to update America’s military commitments to reflect today’s world.