When North Korea launched a nuclear test on 9 September - its fifth so far - it was making a clear statement to the international community of its intentions to continue to pursue full nuclear capability. In what was first believed by some to be an earthquake in the region, the test comes just after the G20 summit meeting in China and was an attempt by Pyongyang to persuade the world that the DPRK is a legitimate nuclear state.
The North Korean nuclear programme is based on a desire for political autonomy and security. The country’s history of foreign invasion and occupation has left the regime deeply distrustful and suspicious of external influence. It has a heavy reliance on China and, to a lesser extent, Russia for trade, but the country operates as a pariah state within the wider international system. In its quest to pursue its policy of juche (self-reliance) through a nuclear weapons programme North Korea has consistently isolated itself from the world community by blatantly violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and acting in defiance of Security Council sanctions.
Where do we now stand?
South Korea has repeatedly called for denuclearisation and the United States has so far supported this goal; neither country is about to accept any change in North Korea’s status. Through a policy of “strategic patience” the Obama administration has implemented tight economic sanctions while also calling for a reopening of multilateral negotiations. Even DPRK’s allies Russia and China have distanced themselves from the country after a series of tests this past year have provoked serious international concern.
The spike in tests have heightened concerns over the DPRK’s nuclear posture, and when they would be willing to contemplate nuclear release. The tests signal a possible failure in the US strategy of strategic patience, and will strengthen calls for the international community to take serious action to prevent a fully-capable nuclear North Korea.
What, then, is the way forward?
In July North Korea sparked some hope in progress by laying out a series of preconditions for denuclearisation talks. The latest test appears to have reversed any immediate optimism, though some will still hope that containment and long-term disarmament may still be within reach. This may depend upon recognising that the window for denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula may have closed.
The most pragmatic option is through China, which has always served as a gatekeeper to Pyongyang. China has played the strongest role in maintaining the country’s independence through economic trade ties and nuclear assistance. Without assistance from China, North Korea simply would not be able to maintain its current two-track policy of economic growth and nuclear progress. Its limited stake in the global market and continued pursuit of an expensive nuclear programme leaves the economy effectively burning itself at both ends.
The sanctions route has done little so far to stymie the DPRK’s nuclear progress. Most Security Council resolutions target the North Korean elites through clauses banning items like yachts and other luxury goods. While this may be intended to encourage them to pressure the regime to appease the international community, the leadership has maintained a strong illusion of totalitarian autonomy. More to the point, so little is known about the inner machinations of the country’s political system that it cannot be measured with certainty just how much influence the upper class actually has.
North Korea has survived hardship before, and has reason to believe that in the extreme cases of famine or mass starvation the international community will inevitably step in and provide aid. Even the U.S. has provided large aid packages in the form of money and foodstuffs to relieve the country’s population.
If the North Korean threat is ever to alleviate change will come predominantly from China and Russia, not the United States. For its part China could choose to take a step back from any trade agreements with the DPRK and make clear that it will act robustly if there are any more tests. Reducing its economic role in the country would send a clear message without forcing its ally into further isolation.
China has been relatively tolerant of the DPRK’s nuclear development if only because it worries the West and balances a long-time enemy in Japan. If the West were to convince China that a fully-capable nuclear North Korea was a real strategic threat to China as well, then a path may be set for applying further pressure on the regime.
What is most concerning about North Korea is what the West, and even the country’s allies, don’t know. Though it may be unwise to speculate it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Pyongyang could in future target missiles at Beijing. After all, the DPRK’s reliance on China inherently threatens its sovereignty. An open-ended nuclear threat would remind China to back off from bullying or ensure its support against mutual adversaries. Discussion of this possibility within China could discourage further support of the Jong-un regime.
What does Syria have to do with it?
In an almost never-ended series of buck-passing, one way to get to China (to get to North Korea) would be through Russia. The Russian-Chinese alliance is perhaps the strongest coalition threatening American dominance, and if the US were to make peace with its significant role may allow for increased multilateral cooperation.
The most immediate way to move forward with Russia is through Syria. The policy divide over supporting Assad’s leadership has been the major hindrance to negotiations on the conflict. If, at least in the short term, the U.S. can agree to reduce its targeting of Assad’s fighters and aim its weapons at Daesh (to whom Russia is also opposed), then the two countries may find a way to engage in productive talks. The recent ceasefire agreement is proof of this.
Though appeasing the Assad regime is hardly savoury, the current stalemate is even worse. Daesh may be losing territory but it has not lost the war. And North Korea, also supported by Russia, continues to provoke the United States and its allies.
For its part, Russia is partly holding on to Assad so tightly because it needs to keep strong ties within the Middle East. The Iran deal opened up its ally to the West and began a tense (though functioning) relationship with the United States. The Kremlin’s already-strained relationship with Turkey is more uncertain after domestic instability as demonstrated by the recent coup in July. More and more Russia finds itself in increasing isolation. Though it is unlikely to be on friendly terms with the U.S. anytime soon, a demonstrated willingness to earnestly engage in talks would perhaps make Russia feel more secure in its position. A desperate Russia would mean stronger support for both Kim Jong-un and Bashar al-Assad.
If the U.S. demonstrates a willingness to seriously negotiate with Russia on Syria by agreeing to reduce its targeting of Assad’s troops then Russia may feel secure enough of its Arab ally to risk losing its Asian one. The Russo-Chinese relationship will hold even if it loses North Korea. Just as with China, the threat that North Korea poses to the international community - maybe Russia itself - is greater than the benefit of letting Washington squirm over Pyongyang.
Like China, Russia can publicly step back from its support of the North Korean regime. Though explicit Kremlin support for Obama’s nuclear test ban initiative may be too much to hope for, Putin can at least call for reduced provocations. Should Pyongyang continue to aim missiles at the Sea of Japan and conduct secret nuclear tests then Russia, secure in Assad’s position and its alliance with China, should place stronger economic pressure on the DPRK.
Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula should remain the goal of the international community, but until the circumstances allow for this to become possible pragmatism is the way forward. Yes, this means sacrificing policy and engaging with unfriendly states - but it is also the only way forward. Patience has only given Pyongyang the window to develop its nuclear programme and the threat can no longer be considered hypothetical. To check North Korea’s growth Washington and its allies must be willing to engage with Russia and China, and this means sacrificing short-term policy goals and accepting that not all battles can be won, but that the war may be.
For more on North Korea’s nuclear programme, see this BASIC factsheet here.