In a recent New York Times piece, Jane Perlez writes about North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un and his newly assertive foreign policy that is not only showing re-trenched hostility towards America and its East Asian allies, but also challenging China on a new level. The particular issue is once again North Korea’s nuclear program and the fact that nobody knows what Pyongyang is doing, since Kim Jong-un put down North Korea’s nuclear status in the country’s constitution and by extension, has made it foreign policy doctrine.
A caveat must be opened here: the issue is not so much the nukes, as it is the development of the delivery capacity for them. North Korea’s failed satellite launch earlier this year means that updates will be made to the Unha-3, which probably will, if not already, make it a multi-purpose rocket. Developing a range of more advanced derivatives over current ones for various radii of operation is an even more worrying prospect.
North Korea’s foreign policy style has traditionally been alternating between amenable and distant, but the problem is the difficulty in predicting when and to what extent these shifts happen. An overwhelming conventional capacity with a nuclear dimension makes it hard to understand when Kim Jong-un may be bluffing or backing a real threat. Events like the sinking of the Cheonan and attempts at launching powerful rockets speak more to the latter, while the bellicose propaganda highlights the former.
Risk analysis on North Korea, therefore, can have wide margins of error. What can be said is that Kim and his entourage may be playing a dangerous geopolitical game of chicken, but they are not idiotic or irrational to be able to do it for three generations and counting. In other words, the internal perspective in Pyongyang likely has a much better risk calculation department to be able to determine what to do when and walk a hair-thin line in the process. Provocation is followed by interim conditionality and the process repeats in an enchanted circle. Only, it gets more dangerous with every round.
American policy cannot include intervention – last time it went badly into a stalemate and that would be likely the case again; or worse, result in a unified nuclear Korea with a huge military potential. For this reason, diplomacy directly with the six-member committee and indirectly via China remain the only tools, but their application lies at the whim of Kim Jong-un, not Barack Obama, and that is the problem on this side of the pond. At this point, tenuous deterrence through bolstering Japan and South Korea are the only real options, but real progress will not come through without anything short of a bi-lateral nuclear arms reduction treaty, similar to the kind Washington has with Moscow. Only that would create the level of trust needed to not eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, but instead keep it controlled. However, the political climate combines with a chronic lack of foreign policy creativity in both capitals to put such a venture in the realm of science fiction. Still, such a treaty with China might become a stepping stone for one with North Korea.
In her article, Perlez talks about China’s overriding security interest in maintaining North Korea, and while she highlights the historical or emotional reasons for China’s support, the justifications are more pragmatic – the Philippines and Indonesia are going to become a silent diplomatic battleground for influence and where India will go is uncertain – New Delhi could allow more of Washington’s influence in the country. A pro-America united Korea will follow in tune for some time, but will also be powerful enough to have a relatively independent foreign policy in due course. As much as such a development would be a nightmare scenario for China, as Perlez points out, it might eventually work against American influence in the Pacific as well. From there we might derive China’s tentatively playing of both sides of the fence – maintaining North Korea out of wider security and less so historical reasons, but being buddies with Washington when Pyongyang gets too rowdy.
North Korea remains a hot foreign policy potato – it is difficult, but not impossible to manage. With some fresh ideas and a recognition of the cycles that govern Pyongyang’s international positions, we might develop a more productive approach in dealing with Stalinist states.