North Korea Ignites a Predictable Chain Reaction

February 8, 2016

North Korea’s fourth nuclear test set in motion a predictable chain reaction. I refer not to the precision of nuclear physics, but to the same old policy responses from all regional powers. The United States condemned the unlawful act and then urged China to join in meting out harsh punitive measures. China demurred, leaving the United States to implore North Korea to fulfill its denuclearization obligations while seeking ways to tweak an existing sanctions regime. Now North Korea, true to form, has followed the nuclear test with another long-range rocket launch, the combination of which brings Pyongyang ever closer to fielding an operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). As the French are fond of saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“the more it changes, the more it stays the same”).

U.S. diplomacy is singularly unpersuasive. Beseeching North Korea to follow Iran’s lead and urging China to exact painful sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang are doomed to fail, sapping American power and credibility in the process.

Only weeks after the nuclear explosion, Washington was busy offering North Korea a false choice between denuclearization and prosperity, while asking China to impose strong sanctions that might threaten the survival of Kim Jong Un’s regime. Speaking in Singapore recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel declared that, “We have extended our hand, but Pyongyang will not unclench its fist.” On these facts we are in full agreement. More dubious, however, is the notion that North Korea should look seriously at the Iran deal as a model for negotiating restraints on its nuclear program.

First, North Korea would not receive billions of dollars in unfrozen assets and new investments that an oil-rich regional power like Iran garners from such an agreement. A U.S. administration in its final year in power is in no position to make promises that only Congress could legislate. Which raises another point: namely, that unlike Iran, North Korea cannot foreswear nuclear weapons; it already has enough fissile material for some 16 bombs and may have a stockpile of as many as 100 by 2020, which makes the dynamics of any possible talks on its weapons program fundamentally different. Furthermore, it is militantly unwilling to subject itself to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and physically and verifiably dismantle critical nuclear infrastructure.

Iran, for all its other unaltered aims and persistent non-nuclear threats, has at least been willing to take a number of concrete, verifiable steps to scale back its nuclear program. That is why the text of the Iran nuclear deal could fill a book, in contrast to the 1994 U.S.–DPRK Agreed Framework that comprised a few pages. The Agreed Framework met its expected demise when both sides faltered over implementation. There is scant evidence that Kim would be willing to walk back his profound commitment to preserving North Korea as a permanent nuclear weapon state. Why is it that North Korea’s most egregious provocations are always followed by at least one noteworthy source suggesting that Pyongyang would like to renew negotiations? As the adage attributed to Freud has it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework should temper some of the triumphalist rhetoric emanating from Washington about the Iran nuclear deal. A decade or so from now, Iran may well be richer and well on its way to building more lethal weapons. It is already said to be in the market for space surveillance technology, even while it conducts missile tests in violation of international law and engages in the reckless harassment of U.S. Navy vessels. In fact, one real concern is that Iran, while continuing its unlawful missile program, might be off-shoring its nuclear program to none other than North Korea. Evidence is hard to come by, but the close technical and scientific cooperation between the two states helps both Tehran and Pyongyang.

Unfortunately, Washington’s reflexive response to the January 6 nuclear test was to once again to press Beijing to do what only it can do but is steadfastly opposed to doing: namely, to freeze the flow of energy and the financial assets that keep the North Korean regime inching ever closer to developing a mobile nuclear ICBM. The United States has to talk to China about North Korea, but does not have to enter those talks from a persistent position of weakness. We should not urge China to sanction North Korea when we know it will not take such pleas seriously. Instead, we should work with South Korea and Japan to bolster our regional military posture while cracking down on Kim’s finances and illicit trading and subjecting his regime to greater transparency through a comprehensive information campaign. In other words, the United States needs to play a leading, not secondary role in stanching North Korean proliferation and provocation.

Andrei Lankov, always a keen observer when it comes to matters North Korean, notes that China still considers Washington’s maneuvers more inimical to Chinese interests than Pyongyang’s. Most Americans think China is wrong, but that is beside the point. The point is that the elite Chinese perception remains fundamentally unaltered. Even though Washington appeared to get the message, China’s predictable reluctance to heavily sanction North Korea turned into yet another point of Sino–U.S. friction.

To be sure, China is irked by Pyongyang. It has inflicted, and will continue to support watered-down United Nations resolutions and to impose minimal costs on its neighbor. But these will be more for show than strategic effect. When Kim opted to test a so-called “H-bomb of justice,” which was more likely a boosted fission device than a thermonuclear one, he did so surely based on the assessment that China would never allow his regime to collapse. Likewise, Kim’s decision to proceed with a satellite launch is based on the same careful assessment of relative gain versus pain. Far from being a loose cannon, Kim is a cold-blooded, carefully calculating, manipulative tyrant. There is little scope for mystery.

Even when China pretends to heed American advice, it falters when it comes applying severe pressure. After Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February 2013, Beijing reduced economic flows to North Korea. Russia sought to fill the breach with some of its plentiful oil. But China’s energy sanctions proved to be short-lived, and trade and relations were improving prior to the January 6 nuclear test. There was even renewed talk of inviting Kim to China.

Just as the test altered neither China’s calculus nor North Korea’s, the United States also reverted to mean. What the test did not do was to stop Washington from imagining that this time China might change course. Now that Kim has fired a long-range rocket from Tongchang-ri launch facility near the northwestern border of China, Washington may once again hope to persuade China to crack down on Pyongyang. But to do so would once again fail to grasp the distance between Chinese and American interests. As Albert Einstein reportedly once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking at which we created them.”

Arms control is a Western construct. But when it comes to North Korea, it is as effective as the sound of one hand clapping. For Kim Jong Un, there is only survival, deception, and the relentless pursuit of power. Notably lacking among these sinister pursuits, however, is the achievement of genuine legitimacy, not to mention humanity, and wisdom. The cards are stacked against the long-term survival of a family dynasty that undermines its people by spending a quarter of its meager budget on nuclear weapons and defense, while simultaneously seeking to isolate its people from the natural interchange of an interconnected world.

We cannot predict when this will end, but we can forecast that it will not end well. Indeed, the only realistic way that North Korea’s criminal regime ends — along with its illegal weapons proliferation and crimes against humanity — is through unification.

In December, I co-authored a report with colleagues at the Center for a New American Security called Solving Long Division, in which we look at the serious possibility of creating a United Republic of Korea (UROK). As President Park Geun-hye has observed, unification is the surest way to achieve lasting security and prosperity in Northeast Asia. The path to unification remains fraught with peril and uncertainty. But it remains the only logical destination. After all, the Asia-Pacific region remains pivotal to the 21st century precisely because it will be the locus of multiple major powers, including not just China and Japan, but also India, Indonesia, and eventually, UROK.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. His report, Solving Long Division: The Geopolitical Implications of Korean Unification, can be downloaded for free at


Photo credit: (stephan)