North Korea, the recalcitrant hermit kingdom, has decided yet again that the international community is ignoring it. Pyongyang has voided the 1953 Korean armistice and warned that it will launch a nuclear attack on the United States as U.S.-South Korean military exercises involving 3,000 American and 10,000 South Korean soldiers began earlier this month.
Exactly how Pyongyang plans to launch a nuclear salvo on the United States is still unclear and whether it has the capacity is questionable. Most North Korea watchers remain doubtful that the belligerent nation has the technical means to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. This does not, however, undermine the seriousness of the threat nor detract from North Korea’s intentions to up the ante. Already, Pyongyang has severed communications with South Korea and launched a propaganda campaign designed to seek out concessions from the United States while at the same time bolstering the credentials of Kim Jong-Un among North Koreans and the country’s military establishment.
The greatest danger for the United States and the international community is that North Korea is unpredictable. Compared to other recalcitrant states like Iran, which does not yet possess a nuclear arsenal, a bloody war was previously fought on the Korean Peninsula over a half century ago. Additionally, North Korea has not shied away from unsolicited attacks in the past and has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to bring the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war. An example can be found in North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in 2010 that killed 46 sailors and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island also in 2010 that killed four South Koreans.
More recently, North Korea not only tested a nuclear weapon a few weeks ago, it also showed its penchant for impulsiveness by test-firing a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan, heightening regional tensions and causing the US to activate ground based missile interceptors as a precaution. Together, these incidents have led to wider escalations, which forces regional neighbors, particularly South Korea, to increase its own defensive military readiness.
The UN Security Council unanimously imposed a new round of sanctions that further infuriated Pyongyang, prompting the regime to say that it was nullifying the nonaggression pact with South Korea. North Korean General Kang Pyo-yong and the country’s vice defense minister also suggested that the country was preparing to lay waste to the United States with nuclear-armed ICBMs. “With their targets set, our intercontinental ballistic missiles and other missiles are on a standby, loaded with lighter, smaller and diversified nuclear warheads,” Kang Pyo-yong said. “If we push the button, they will blast off, and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil, and its followers, into a sea of fire.”
However, such statements have become so typical of North Korea over the years that it seems as if it has become North Korea’s primary foreign policy agenda. Pyongyang often resorts to empty threats of annihilation and many North Korean experts suggest that the heightened rhetoric is just that. “This is part of their brinksmanship,” suggests Daniel Pinkston with the International Crisis Group. “It’s an effort to signal their resolve, to show they are willing to take greater risks, with the expectation that everyone else caves in and gives them what they want.” Among the threats of turning Washington into a “sea of fire,” South Korea has warned Pyongyang that it would “evaporate it from the face of the Earth” if it launched a preemptive attack on Washington or Seoul. Washington maintains that it is closely monitoring North Korean military activities.
“The United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack. And our recent success in returning to testing of the upgraded version of the so-called GBI, or the CE2 missile, will keep us on a good trajectory to improve our defense capability against limited ballistic missile threats such as those from North Korea.” says Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “But let’s be clear, we are fully capable of dealing with that threat.” Then what should be done about Pyongyang’s threats?
Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father Kim Jong-Il in December 2011, and continues to demonstrate that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Thus far, the newly installed leader continues to stick to the same playbook that his father used, a routine of threatening South Korea and the US then pulling back only to hope to extort greater concessions from the international community. Direct military action on North Korea is out of the question, because of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the possibility that the South Korean capital could be under the threat of its brutal artillery barrage; if North Korea isn’t bluffing, one of the largest standing armies on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone and tens of thousands of US troops could be eviscerated by a preemptive nuclear attack by the North.
The international community cannot stand idly by as the absence of action virtually assures that North Korean misbehavior will continue. The country’s belligerence is in response to increased international sanctions put forth to punish it for violating countless UN resolutions. By removing sanctions or easing them, it would in effect send the message that North Korean behavior was condoned and serve as a substantial propaganda victory for Kim Jong-Un.
To say the international community is stuck between a rock and a possibly nuclear-armed hermit kingdom is an understatement. With no realistic military options available and the pressure of international sanctions falling on the deaf ears of North Korean leaders, China carries the burden of responsibility and is the power behind the petulant black sheep as North Korea’s longest and most important alley. It provides the North with its economic lifeblood and the vast majority of its energy needs. In turn, China remains the state actor with the greatest capacity to reign in Pyongyang, though it is quickly diminishing.
China has its own objectives and national interests at stake that serve to create a delicate push-and-pull relationship with North Korea. Specifically, China fears the eventual and sudden collapse of North Korea. A flood of refugees and loss of nuclear weapons in the event of a leadership implosion would have a profound impact on Chinese interests. Consequently, China does not want to impose stringent sanctions or apply enough force that it risks such an internal collapse, but it does not want to be subject to criticism from the international community either. At the same time, however, China realizes that North Korean belligerence and instability on the Korean Peninsula could force the South Koreans to pursue nuclear deterrence themselves. While this would be a dramatic escalation and could bring the North and the South to the very precipice of war, it is a real possibility if South Korea has no other alternative.
Full nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a dangerous prospect for all, and China knows this. But there are other more subtle pressures arising as a result of North Korea’s actions. Specifically, China is greatly concerned by America’s missile defense system and views North Korean actions as being used as justification for Washington to continue build up its missile defense capabilities. As a consequence of this, China sees its own nuclear deterrence as being undermined by North Korean actions.
In the end, the international community feels largely incapable of reeling in North Korea, and the Chinese remain the closest thing to a parental figure that can deescalate tensions in the region. The West and its allies will remain largely impotent in their ability to thwart North Korean actions unless hostilities flare up. In the interim, and since North Korea remains a dependent client state of China, Beijing remains the power behind Pyongyang’s survival and the most effective means to ensuring events on the Korean Peninsula do not spiral out of control.