North Korea and what to do about it highlights an enduring split in the international community that reaches up to the UN Security Council itself. The erratic behavior of the Kim dynasty has long enraged and exasperated both its enemies and allies, though larger states have certainly not been above using North Korea’s existence as a fig leaf for moves of their own which could be seen as hostile acts if Pyongyang was not around to provide them cover.
How a heavily armed but impoverished country is still seen as a bargain chip to be used in competitive maneuverings between rival powers in the region could fill a book on diplomacy. Nevertheless North Korea remains an island of poverty and brutality surrounded by increasingly rich and peaceful neighbors. The paradox is highlighted whenever the hermit kingdom’s military-first policies cause it to lash out belligerently as it did just recently with another in a long line of nuclear tests.
Part of the problem facing the development of deeper ties between the mutually suspicious powers of Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. is that North Korean political evolution seems to have become trapped down a blind alley. Its neighbors are afraid of the fragile regime’s intentions but they are equally nervous about the the alternatives.
A violent implosion of the country would generate a wave of refugees into South Korea and China and could cause carnage inside and out of North Korea’s borders. A military attempt to disarm the regime certainly would and is vehemently opposed by China into the bargain. Meanwhile three generations of Kims have now come and gone without any serious change of the state’s peculiar blend of autarkic economic isolation, criminal revenue generation, and threats and appeals for international aid.
The cause of gradual reform inside the northern half of the peninsula received a possibly terminal setback when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle-in-law and former mentor, Chang Song-thaek, became the most high profile in a series of officials to be executed under his rule. He had been seen as the leading advocate of a Chinese-style reform of the economy and, unusually, China did not express public support at the North Korean government’s decision to execute him. It has however continued to back away from inflicting serious economic sanctions that might curb Pyongyang’s periodic nuclear blackmail attempts.
Relations between China and North Korea have been frosty in recent years as Beijing has deepened ties with South Korea. There is an obvious economic logic to this but South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye has also made considerable outreaches to her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, hoping to gain China’s collaboration to make economic sanctions more impactful. For example Park visited Beijing to attend the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II, which the U.S. and its other allies mostly shunned. Despite this Beijing’s long-stated preference for dialogue—namely, a resumption of the Six Party Talks—over sanctions has not changed, much to the South’s frustration.
The North Korean issue now seems to have moved full circle back to the early years of the 21st century, with America offering the deployment of its THAAD missile defense system to South Korea and Japan. Talk of a missile defense deployment to contain North Korea always spooks China which perceives it is aimed as much against its own nuclear deterrent as Pyongyang. Accepting the THAAD could therefore jeopardize bilateral ties that the Park administration has striven to build up, setting back a promising turn away from the mini-Cold War mind-set that still dominates northeastern Asia.
As ever, developments will probably turn on events inside North Korea itself, which so far has not been able to miniaturize its nuclear arsenal well enough to attach it to a missile. An announcement with that news from Pyongyang would send the mood of the states around the Korean peninsula distinctly darker.