North Korea’s latest nuclear test in mid-February heightened international tensions in East Asia yet again. As a direct result, on March 7th the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted new sanctions to further isolate North Korea from the international community. Is the latest resolution a signal of a possible change in Beijing’s policy towards Pyongyang? China is generally acknowledged as being North Korea’s only ally, but its role in curbing Pyongyang is open to interpretation. China’s stance poses the greatest policy variability: it has altered from unconditional economic support to North Korea to backing the latest UN sanctions.
China’s role is crucial in a region dominated by uncertain relations and risky rhetoric. Strategic miscalculations and diplomatic slipups between Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul and Tokyo could exacerbate the situation even further. Whilst China’s position towards Pyongyang remains ambiguous, South Korea and Japan clearly fall under the sphere of influence of the US, whose priority is to assure nuclear-nonproliferation in the region. Thus maintaining a cooperative relation between South Korea and Japan is a prerequisite for effective US engagement in the area.
North Korea’s standpoint is sometimes hard to ascertain: it now appears the regime of Kim Jun-un actually wants isolation. Gone are the days of high hopes that the boy-dictator might be more interested in economic development than military policies. The launch of a satellite in mid-December and the nuclear test in mid-February were purposely timed to influence national elections in Japan and South Korea – suggesting the DPRK’s wish to see more conservative, pro-military governments in Tokyo and Seoul. In fact, North Koreans prefer conservatives in power in Seoul and Tokyo, as a more robust vision of national defense in Japan and South Korea will antagonize China, which, secluded in East Asia might be more likely to maintain its support for the Kim regime. Since the latest Japanese elections, the new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in the process of expanding the country’s defense spending. Meanwhile, the newly elected President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, has enhanced military drills in cooperation with the US.
If we assume, as is most likely, that Pyongyang’s objective is to maintain a strong military control of the country, then the ongoing escalation of tensions serves the regime’s own interest. The question remains of how long China is willing to turn a blind eye on these dynamics. With the new UN sanctions against North Korea, will China be ready to implement the punitive measures mentioned in Resolution 2094? These include mandatory inspections of North Korean ships and planes suspected of carrying banned items, as well as blocking North Korean officials from carrying large amounts of cash and luxury goods.
The dynamics at play on the Korean peninsula are exemplified by the tit-for-tat tactical strategy of provocation and retaliation over the last few weeks. The nuclear test conducted at the Punggye-ri underground test site on February 12th, was officially in reaction to UNSC Resolution 2087 – condemning the satellite launch that North Korea undertook in mid-December. Furthermore, the March 7th UNSC resolution condemning the nuclear test of February 12th has provoked immediate reactions from North Korean authorities. They have rebuked the new round of sanctions and called for the immediate cancellation of all non-aggression pacts with the South and the cutting off of the North-South hotline.
As the events above show there is little hope for any cooperation from North Korea. The country has breached international security recommendations for the last ten years: it walked away from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003; resisted negotiations within the framework of the Six-Party Talks established by the US, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan; tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009 and recently in 2013; ignored UN resolutions and sanctions; sank a South Korean navy ship and shelled one of its islands in 2010. The conclusion should be that Pyongyang is not going to give up its nuclear and missile development programs no matter what incentives the international community offers. At the same time, the impact of more economic sanctions will do little to further harm the most sanctioned country in the world.
Confronted with this scenario, the choices neighboring countries have are extremely limited. The President of South Korea Park Geun-hye had originally called for confidence-building policies based on economic cooperation with its northern neighbor but given Kim’s regime incitement, she had to backpedal quickly stating she would deal strongly with North Korea’s provocations. South Korea is also continuing to conduct planned live-fire joint military drills with the US a few miles from the border. In short, Seoul seems to be putting pressure on North Korea not to aggravate the situation any further, while keeping the door open to an unlikely detente – in other words, a hybrid policy.
China poses the greatest policy uncertainty. Some speculation exists that under Xi Jinping, China’s new leadership might finally be ready to take a different course: the backing of the UNSC sanctions is a step in this direction, but the most telling sign of Beijing’s real stance will be in how effectively it will implement the measures it has officially supported.
The erratic and aggressive response of the Kim regime to UN sanctions does not necessarily mean that an all-out war in East Asia is more likely. At most, North Korea might conduct a series of attacks resembling those in 2010 that included the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan ship. Overall, North Korea is truly being cornered. Pyongyang faces unprecedented pressure after China’s approval of the UN sanctions and because of the recent US-South Korea military drills. This leaves the country with little option but to continue its tactic of brinkmanship.