Magazine | May 15, 2017, Issue

A Different Kind of Crisis

The standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons heads into uncharted territory

At the Passover festive meal, the key question, asked by the youngest child at the table, is: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The question is asked every year, and every year the set response is designed to highlight why this night really is distinguishable from all the rest.

With similar regularity, North Korea precipitates a crisis over its nuclear and missile programs. And, as at the Jewish seder, the same questions are always asked and the same answers always given. Why is this Korean crisis different from all other Korean crises? This time, the North Koreans will launch a successful intercontinental ballistic missile; this time, the U.S. Navy will shoot it down; this time, China really is upset and will pressure North Korea; this time, Washington will make a grand bargain with Pyongyang or Beijing; and on and on. Like the traditional Passover readings, the questions and answers never vary.

They have become a constant in East Asian diplomacy over the past 25 years, since the Clinton administration threatened to bomb Kim Il-sung’s nascent nuclear program in 1994, only to pull back at the last minute and begin a well-intentioned but futile attempt to negotiate with the dictator in Pyongyang. In Clinton’s wake, Presidents Bush and Obama both made similar diplomatic attempts, despite endemic and increasingly sophisticated North Korean cheating on promises to shutter its nuclear program. Bush continued the fiction of negotiations even after North Korea detonated its first nuclear device in 2006, in the middle of the six-party talks.

A particularly fevered season of North Korean–crisis speculation has broken out recently, as another round of missiles have been launched and apparent nuclear-test preparation has commenced. Yet perhaps it is worth asking whether this North Korean crisis really is different.

There are several reasons it could be. The first is straightforward: Kim Jong-un. North Korea’s current dictator has been in power since December 2011, so this is not his first provocation. Indeed, since he took power, North Korea has launched dozens of missiles and conducted three nuclear tests, one in 2013 and two in 2016.

Yet American intelligence and national-security officials feel that the young Kim, about whom the world knew almost nothing before he took power, is a less predictable, less controllable, and less disciplined personality than his father or grandfather. Instead of seeming to use his nuclear and missile tests as bargaining chips, as his father did, Kim has increased the pace of banned activity, keeping the peninsula on a steady crisis footing, and matched it to chilling if routine rhetoric about launching devastating attacks on the United States and its allies.

Kim is certainly as brutal as his predecessors, if not more so, having executed as many as 340 people since taking over. (Needless to say, precise numbers are hard to come by.) Those who have fallen under his sword include his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, murdered in broad daylight at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and China’s key agent in North Korea — an assassination that has many wondering whether Kim has no fear of Beijing. North Korea continues to exist because its leaders have long had a strange ability to approach the point of no return without ever reaching it, but it’s not clear that Kim is quite so sophisticated. He could precipitate armed confrontation owing to arrogance, mania, or simple miscalculation.

The second reason this North Korean crisis may be different is the American leader: Donald Trump. The track record of American failure vis-à-vis North Korea may complicate the situation for Trump — but it could also liberate him. The Bush administration’s repeated attempts to negotiate with Kim Jong-il, even as Pyongyang worked assiduously toward a nuclear weapon, put paid to the conceit that intensive, multilateral diplomacy could change the Kim regime’s behavior. By contrast, Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” (marred by the ill-considered and ill-fated 2012 Leap Day Agreement, which tied food aid to North Korea’s promise not to conduct missile tests) showed that ignoring the North would lead to . . . nothing. The Obama administration passively observed three nuclear tests and multiple missile launches. The need for a new approach, or a third way, is evident.

Trump has matched North Korea’s hyperbolic rhetoric with some of his own, marking a sharp break with recent U.S. practice. In doing so, he may be following his familiar playbook, staking out an aggressive, maximalist position (“We’re going to take care of North Korea”) to shape subsequent negotiations. Trump also has ordered a U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier strike group to the waters off North Korea, and his vice president has publicly declared that the era of “strategic patience” is over. Setting aside the overwrought controversy about whether the strike group was dispatched to Korea exactly when Trump said it was, this White House is clearly quick to flex muscle. Moreover, anyone doubting Donald Trump’s resolve to use military force has to be reconsidering after his missile strike on Syria. Deploying an aircraft carrier to Korean waters appears for now a more credible way to pressure Kim into better behavior or into another round of negotiations than were the policies of Trump’s predecessors.

If the president intends to open negotiations with Pyongyang, he probably will distance himself from both Bush and Obama by negotiating with the constant threat of military action. The tactic will be to display limited American patience with Kim’s conduct — a major reversal from the prior two administrations — in order to extract maximum concessions. The likelihood of Pyongyang’s breaking an agreement would be high, but its doing so would risk punitive action from the U.S., assuming the Trump administration were willing to pursue it. Whether that would tame the North or precipitate an all-out conflict is unknowable; but backing down would surely undercut, perhaps fatally, U.S. influence on the North Korean issue, leaving China as the dominant actor.

That suggests a third reason this Korean crisis may be different from others. There is little doubt that China is reaching the end of its patience with Kim Jong-un. Beijing’s turning against Kim does not mean a Chinese abandonment of North Korea itself — the hermit nation is still far too valuable to Beijing as a buffer between U.S.-aligned South Korea and itself, not to mention as a convenient thorn in the side of the United States.

But as the execution of Jang Song-thaek proved, Kim Jong-un is no mere Chinese puppet. According to those in the know, he has spurned Xi Jinping’s summons to China, and his brazen murder of his half-brother in a foreign country showed the dangerous reach of his secret services. There are whispers that Xi finds Kim a threat to China’s continued hold on North Korea, and perhaps to stability in northeast Asia generally. That China is publicly refusing coal shipments from North Korea and turning away its ships (whether the coal was already paid for has not been disclosed), and has suggested that it might cut off oil to the North, may be seen as the beginning of a campaign to squeeze Kim, to foment unrest among the North Korean elite, or to block more-assertive Trump-administration action by feigning cooperation. In any case, the withdrawal of Chinese support for Kim has the potential to be enormously significant — potentially even prompting a crisis that threatens the Kim regime’s grip on power.

Finally, this crisis may be different because of South Korea. The impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye has turned South Korean politics upside down. It appears that progressive Democratic-party candidate Moon Jae-in will replace her in the upcoming election; and, if not, the winner will almost certainly be center-left politician Ahn Cheol-soo, of the People’s party. Either way, the next leader of South Korea may well decide to return the country to the “sunshine policy” of the 1990s, which was based on engagement with North Korea and a distancing from the United States. Candidate Moon, in particular, has demonstrated an openness to downgrading South Korea’s alliance with Washington and moving closer to both Pyongyang and Beijing. That could lead to the formation of a bloc of countries opposed to the United States and Japan; the former would find its influence severely diminished, while the latter would face new, difficult questions about how best to defend itself. It is unlikely that anything like a formal alliance, let alone unification with the Kim regime, would take place, but the result nonetheless would isolate Washington and strengthen Beijing as it weighs whether to work with Kim or precipitate his removal from power. South Korea would have set in motion a train of events that would reshape northeast Asia and dramatically increase the power of illiberal states.

Given the well-worn ruts of the North Korean nuclear and missile crisis, it is likely that all actors will simply revert to form — blustering and threatening one another, mulling more negotiations without preconditions, and trying to kick the can farther down the road. Yet the longer this slow-motion crisis accumulates, the likelier it is that new conditions will emerge. Once that happens, all bets are off, and the country with the boldest approach, the most sophisticated policy, or the greatest national will is likely to emerge the geopolitical victor. The United States should prepare. A North Korean crisis different from all the others is on its way — if it isn’t here already.

– Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region.

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