North Korean Crisis Continues to Sizzle

While tensions rise, the Iran connection is overlooked.

North Korea continues to hold the foreign policy crisis spotlight. The rogue regime tested yet another missile on Saturday, which failed like the previous attempted launch. Unbowed, North Korea threatened to carry out a nuclear test “at any time and at any location” its leaders choose to do so. “The DPRK’s measures for bolstering the nuclear force to the maximum will be taken in a consecutive and successive way at any moment and any place decided by its supreme leadership,” a spokesman for the North Korean foreign ministry declared, using the acronym for the regime’s formal name, the Democratic Republic of Korea. When President Trump was asked during his “Face the Nation” interview, which aired on Sunday, how he would react to a sixth nuclear test by North Korea, he replied, “I would not be happy.“  In response to a follow-up question whether being unhappy meant “military action,” President Trump, as usual, kept his options open. “I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see,” he said.

The weekend drama followed an open ministerial level meeting of the United Nations Security Council last Friday on the North Korean situation, presided over by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Secretary Tillerson made clear that all options remained on the table, including military action if necessary. However, the bulk of his address was devoted to urging all members of the international community to tighten the economic and diplomatic screws on North Korea in order to increase its isolation. 

“For too long, the international community has been reactive in addressing North Korea,” Secretary Tillerson said. “Those days must come to an end. Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences.” Talks are out of the question, he added, until North Korea decides to “take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies.” This means not just a nuclear and missile freeze, which is something China has proposed in exchange for a freeze on major military exercises in the region by the United States and South Korea. The Trump administration will be looking for evidence that North Korea is actually beginning “to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile technology programs.”  That is highly unlikely, however, as the regime sees its survival depending on its ability to project a credible nuclear threat against its enemies, particularly the United States.

The Trump administration has tried to distinguish its policy of “urgency” with the failed “strategic patience” approach of the Obama administration. What that means in practical terms is three-fold.

First, tighten enforcement of existing UN sanctions and ramp up the sanctions both at the UN and unilaterally. “We must levy new sanctions on DPRK entities and individuals supporting its weapons and missile programs, and tighten those already in place,” Secretary Tillerson told the Security Council. “The United States also would much prefer countries and people in question own up to their lapses and correct their behavior themselves, but we will not hesitate to sanction third country entities and individuals supporting the DPRK’s illegal activities.”

Second, lean harder on China to use its economic leverage in pressuring North Korea to change its behavior. China accounts for around 90% of North Korean trade. President Trump has highlighted the importance of China’s role, and believes that he made good progress in enlisting China’s help during his meeting last month in Florida with Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, while China’s interests in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions overlap those of the United States, it does not want to be seen, publicly at least, as the key to solving the North Korean problem. And the Chinese government fears that overplaying their hand could cause unintended consequences destabilizing the regime and leading to masses of North Koreans trying to enter China as refugees.

During his remarks to the Security Council last Friday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that dialogue and negotiations were the only course to lower tensions. “China is not a focal point of the problem on the peninsula. And the key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” he said. Foreign Minister Wang Yi also reiterated China’s opposition to the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea.

In sum, China can be of help, and may even be going further than it has in the past.  As an example of a recent concrete action it has taken, China has turned back shipments of coal it received from North Korea, depriving the regime of an important source of revenue. It has agreed to tighten enforcement of existing UN sanctions resolutions. And for all we know, China has been taking other measures behind the scenes, which may explain why North Korea has not yet conducted its sixth nuclear test. However, China is not going to stick its neck out too far, even with concessions on trade that President Trump appears willing to offer.

Third, the Trump administration has worked assiduously to integrate preparedness for military action with pressure diplomacy. As Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser explained, “what this president has done is he’s now connected what our military options are with what we’re trying to politically. For too long, those two things were disconnected from each other. So, you need the viable option, the military option, to help make what you were doing diplomatically, economically, with sanctions, viable, to be able to resolve this problem short of what would be, as the president said, a major, major war and a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Therein lies the problem, however. A preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities will most certainly trigger the regime to launch a devastating reprisal attack against South Korea and possibly even Japan, potentially costing millions of lives. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whom President Trump referred to as a “pretty smart cookie,” is smart enough to know that no American president – not even Donald Trump – would be willing to take that chance. Thus, tough talk about the military option may be perceived in North Korea as little more than a bluff.

Moreover, President Trump has been sending mixed signals. On the one hand, he talks about the possibility of a major conflict, while on the other hand he holds out the possibility of talking directly with Kim Jong-un under the right circumstances. “I would be honored to do it,” the president told Bloomberg News on Monday. President Trump did not define what the right circumstances would be for such talks to take place, but he appeared to take a softer approach than both his national security advisor and secretary of state. Such mixed signals can end up confusing everyone, which may be President Trump’s intent, but a policy of deliberate confusion could backfire with someone as unstable as Kim Jong-un.

Finally, there is one facet of the North Korean problem that has hardly received any mention. That is reports of North Korea’s continuing collaborative relationship with Iran, enabling both countries’ nuclear programs to advance. According to two Israeli experts whom have studied the matter, “Iran is circumventing the restrictions on its nuclear program under the nuclear agreement with the P5+1 countries by collaborating with North Korea on missile development and modifying missiles for nuclear weapons.” They believe that a “strategic, military-technological collaboration” between the two countries is likely underway right now. 

With one rogue nuclear armed state that has already been threatening nuclear war working with a wannabe nuclear armed state that is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, the risk to U.S. and international security is multiplied exponentially unless steps can be taken to stop the collaboration in its tracks.