On Monday, North Korea said that it carried out the threat to sever the armistice agreement with South Korea after disconnecting the direct phone line between them, in a robust show of defiance against the recent decision of the United Nations Security Council to impose a new round of sanctions on Pyongyang. While we might dismiss these developments as only the latest round of bellicose rhetoric without substance, I submit that the chasm between North Korea’s bark and bite is visibly closing, making a localized short-term conventional confrontation a very possible risk.
Washington also imposed additional unilateral sanctions on North Korea, specifically against certain high-ranking regime members responsible for setting the direction of the military and imposed a freeze on Americans doing business with the Second Economic Committee, which is responsible for ballistic missile production.
Foreign policy adviser Tom Denilon also expressed a position on China, calling on Beijing to reconsider its relations with North Korea, further buoyed by the recent Sino-U.S. cooperation on the passed sanctions at the UN. While China still has an interest in maintaining the North as the security buffer against American influence in southeast Asia, the potential for North Korea to turn into a free radical with its own agenda is becoming an increasingly real threat to all regional players.
The State Department’s Victoria Nuland expressed a more measured position from the department, saying that the pullout of the armistice was dangerous rhetoric and not action.
What is happening, however, is a reversal of six decades of glacial diplomatic progress with North Korea, unfurled overnight. On our end, we see again that sanctions remain a powerful non-violent tool to deal with opposing forces in the international system, but their effectiveness in creating the desired change in behaviour from the side being sanctioned remains very dubious. As far as North Korea is concerned, sanctions only intensify the behaviour we don’t want to see in the first place.
The technological capacity of North Korea to launch missiles into North America may still be hampered in effectiveness from its relative lack of sophistication, but Pyongyang’s potential to operate in the immediate neighbourhood makes it a very potent opponent. This week’s traditional naval maneuvres by South Korea and the United States are only going to ratchet up the tensions even higher, but they also underscore the increasing importance of America’s ally system in the Pacific. The ensuing geopolitical one-upmanship is much about status as it is a game of conventional and nuclear chicken about who blinks first.
The Kim dynasty has managed to contain a very reactive regime up until this point and it is beyond doubt that they hold the power levers of consequence, but dangerous destabilization devolving into open warfare is a possibility that is all-too close now, even if it was never far away in the first place.
If we are going to prevent war from shattering lives on the peninsula, we have to begin again from the proverbial square one of diplomacy: negotiating an absurd armistice for a mini-Cold War.