North Korea’s recent nuclear test and yesterday's threats to end the armistice that halted the Korean War have raised eyebrows. These most recent threats come on the heels of an agreement between the U.S. and China on UN Security Council resolutions that would punish the authoritarian state. North Korea has made similar threats before, and China has agreed to UN sanctions for the North in the past, but could political changes around the Korean peninsula mean larger changes are on the horizon?
North Korea re-entered international headlines on February 12th, when it tested a nuclear device at the Punggye-ri underground test site. The tests were almost universally condemned, with even China, often considered a main supporter of the North, expressing disapproval.
The nuclear device was described by the North Korean state news agency KCNA as "miniaturized," which implied the possibility their military could attach it to a long-range missile. Considering the test came two months after the launching of a rocket that the South Korean defense ministry said could fly "more than 10,000km with a warhead of 500-600kg," the miniature device is particularly worrisome. The rocket, which North Korea said was launched for peaceful purposes, passed over Japan’s territory and brought criticism from the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. China’s response was more muted. Foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei expressed "regret" and warned the Security Council to be "prudent and moderate," saying its reaction should be "conducive to peace and stability, avoiding an escalation of the situation." Hong sidestepped a question about the launch violating U.N. resolutions.
The recent nuclear test was in clear defiance of China’s calls for all sides to de-escalate the situation and de-nuclearize the peninsula. Indeed, militarization increased significantly when South Korea followed up the test by accelerating development of ballistic missiles with a range of 800 kilometers, putting all of the North, as well as parts of China, Japan, and Russia within range of missiles stationed on the Korean peninsula.
Yesterday, China and the U.S. reportedly struck a tentative deal on new sanctions. Russia is also said to be backing them. A draft paper of the resolutions will be distributed Thursday, but U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the new sanctions target "the illicit activities of North Korean diplomatic personnel, North Korean banking relationships, and illicit transfers of bulk cash" and would "significantly impede the ability of North Korea to develop further its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs."
As these details emerged, North Korea reported that it would cancel the 1953 ceasefire that led to an armistice and cut the communications line to the U.S. installation on the border. Though the potential for more sanctions is surely a reason for the rhetoric, the cancellation is also due to ongoing U.S.-South Korea war games that are slated to involve 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 of the 28,500 troops U.S. troops stationed in the South.) These games follow those from this past summer, which used live ammunition, North Korean flags, and were considered the largest such games since the 1953 armistice. Militarization on both sides creates a vicious cycle.
China has in the past gone along with sanctions against North Korea, though it continues to keep it afloat with oil, food, and other supplies. Such moves have less to do with supporting an ideological ally (as if we could actually see ideological similarities in the governments and economies of both countries) than with maintaining Chinese security. In short, any collapse in the North Korean state would mean a mass influx of refugees and South Korean control over the peninsula, which also might mean American troops on its border. For all the trouble it might cause, China is better off with North Korea than without it.
While North Korea seems to be a problem that won’t disappear in the foreseeable future, economic relations between South Korea, China, and Japan continue to intensify. In fact, the three countries accounted for 16% of world trade in 2011, with $330 billion in bilateral trade occurring between the latter two. At the same time, as the three countries greet their new leaders there is some hope that political animosities may fade. This of course remains to be seen.