North Korea may have served up 2016’s first “Black Swans” as the most isolated regime tested a hydrogen bomb. Or not, as there’s widespread skepticism Kim Jong Un has the technological prowess to move so rapidly up the weapons-of-mass-destruction ladder.
Even if Pyongyang is exaggerating — hardly a first — last Wednesday’s act was a wake-up call for distracted world powers, and in a good way. The silver lining here is that China, Kim’s sugar daddy and geopolitical fail-safe, seems even more annoyed than the White House.
This isn’t the first time Beijing joined global condemnation over North Korean nuclear tests (it did so in 2013). But speculation is rife that President Xi Jinping is furious and mulling ways to apply leverage. The conventional wisdom is that North Korea just highlighted the limits of Beijing’s ability to rein in its recalcitrant ally. The reality is China has barely tried. Is this a game changer?
“Sooner or later we may need a concerted international effort to rein this ambitious young ruler in,” says Bradley Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”
China is the key. Xi has more than enough on his plate trying to restructure the second-biggest economy, curb corruption, reduce air pollution and dominate the South China Sea. In Xi’s orbit, Kim just became the 800-pound gnat buzzing around his head. Of course, Kim’s bomb test was meant to thrust North Korea into global headlines dominated by the Islamic State group, the U.S. election and Apple’s profits. Consider Wednesday the diplomatic equivalent of twerking.
Yet it’s time to break the cycle. Xi should tighten the screws and telegraph more moves to come. United Nations sanctions have had limited success. What’s needed is for Kim’s main benefactor (China did $6.4 billion of trade with Pyongyang in 2014) to begin cutting off his allowance. Slowly and carefully, of course. Past efforts at financial punishment hurt North Korea’s 25 million people more than the Kim clan. And Xi hardly wants to contend with a refugee crisis if the government collapsed.
For starters, though, Xi could visit Pyongyang, or invite Kim to Beijing. “Look,” the 62 year-old Xi should tell Kim (who turned 33 on Friday), “your days of blackmailing the world for food, money and fuel are over. In the age of military drones, GPS tracking and omnipresent electronic surveillance, transporting your fake $100 bills and pirated goods is getting harder and less profitable. We can help you. I’ll send a small army of technocrats your way to increase agricultural yields, create new industries and train your workers. Taking care of your people, more than anything else, will keep you in power. That’s how China did it.”
Next, Xi should bless a global response. On Pyongyang, Beijing would be wise to make an exception to its policy of noninterference with foreign governments, lest it suffer blowback both reputational and economic. China’s emergence comes with commensurate responsibility. At a time when Xi is keen to raise Beijing’s clout — to be a global stakeholder as well as a shareholder — the Kim dynasty is an obvious target.
It’s also a chance for Xi to work with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as opposed to trading barbs. Why not sit down with Abe and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye and find a collective answer to the Kim question? Yes, I know — China has long favored the status quo as it keeps Tokyo and Washington off balance. But this arrangement is no more workable than Washington’s own sepia-toned policies. The U.S.’ call for Kim to scrap his nuclear program, for example, is a complete nonstarter.
When U.S. President George W. Bush named three “Axis of Evil” regimes and toppled one (Baghdad), the message to Tehran and Pyongyang was go nuclear in a hurry. Kim’s nukes are his insurance policy, like it or not, and the world must learn to live with it. President Barack Obama’s “red line” warnings didn’t work in Syria or Ukraine, and they most certainly won’t fly with North Korea.
Let’s focus on what global leaders can change: Kim’s incentives. That means focusing as much on carrots as sticks. The big risk isn’t Kim using his nukes, but selling the technology. Even as Beijing threatens to withdraw financial support, Obama and Abe could give North Korea the Cuba treatment. Just as Obama reversed course on Washington’s failed policy of isolating the Castro brothers, he should use capitalism to reduce Kim’s incentive to open a nuclear bazaar. It would have to be done carefully, methodically and very much on a trust-but-verify basis. But a question for the neocons sure to abhor this idea: where have decades of brinksmanship gotten us? North Korea went nuclear anyway.
Is Kim’s latest test an attempt, albeit clumsy, to change the narrative? “Listen to Kim’s words and it might seem he’s only building deterrence,” says Martin, who teaches journalism at the University of Iowa. “But he has achieved that, so why escalate further at this point?”
Abe could dangle the specter of aid and access to Japanese markets. In return, he could demand Pyongyang come clean on Japanese citizens abducted in the 1970s and 1980s (winning plaudits at home). Park could redouble efforts to make the case for reunification, even if on a limited basis, that enables the South to tap the North’s cheap labor and the North access to the South’s markets. Xi can get things rolling by using the leverage only Beijing can exert.
Again, these suggestions will strike some as credulous. Yet it was Albert Einstein, a man who knew a thing or two about history’s most powerful weapon, who termed insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. If the international community’s policy toward Pyongyang doesn’t fit that definition, what does?
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com