Four days after North Korea conducted its latest nuclear weapons test in January, the United States flew a B-52 bomber over South Korea. This show of force by the U.S. challenged North Korea’s insistence that it had tested a hydrogen bomb, as if to say: “So you say you tested a hydrogen bomb? Well, then, let us show you a real hydrogen bomb.” B-52s are capable of carrying hydrogen bombs.
B-52 bombers are also loaded with highly destructive “bunker busters” — bombs that can penetrate deep into the ground. The B-52 flight over South Korea also sent the message that, if necessary, the bombers could destroy North Korea’s underground military facilities, of which there are reportedly more than 5,000.
Such a U.S. response likely came as no surprise to North Korea. The Korean Central News Agency quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as describing the recent test as “a self-defensive step for reliably defending the peace on the Korean Peninsula and the regional security from the danger of nuclear war caused by the U.S.-led imperialists.”
The fact that North Korea went out of its way to claim it had tested a hydrogen bomb is also significant: That was probably an attempt to present itself as not merely another nuclear power, but rather as a nuclear power with the same status as the U.S. and Russia, both of which possess hydrogen bombs.
We should also understand the January test as further proof that North Korea’s nuclear development is not intended as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the U.S., but rather as a national strategy of deterrence against the U.S. North Korea has no intention of relinquishing its nuclear weapons, even if that may result in forgoing opportunities for lifting sanctions, establishing diplomatic relations and economic cooperation, or concluding a peace agreement with the U.S.
The U.S.-led approach to North Korea following the 1994 “agreed framework” and the China-led approach following the 2005 “six-party talks” were both predicated upon North Korea’s denuclearization. The latest nuclear test reminds us that this line of negotiation has ended in failure.
What’s more, Kim Jong Un has proven to be far more anxious and suspicious than his late father, Kim Jong Il. Consequently, there is great risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation in dealing with North Korea. Even if the U.S. were to switch to a policy of engagement with the North Korean regime, clashes in the negotiating process itself might actually prompt an emotionally charged deterioration in relations or further aggravate Kim’s paranoia.
The biggest problem is the strategically competitive relationship that is emerging between the U.S. and China. Kim is most likely attempting to take advantage of the their divide.
There are some in the U.S. who agree with the call by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, that “now more than ever, China and the U.S. should aim for a strategic agreement on the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.” But distrust of Beijing is deepening steadily in Washington as a result of China’s aggressive behavior in both the South China Sea and the realm of cyber security. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that the Obama administration — now in its final year — has the diplomatic stamina required to achieve a strategic accord with China on the subject of North Korea.
Since a “reunification” of the Korean Peninsula would involve the collapse of the current regime in the north, China must be careful to avoid any imprudent reference to such a goal. At a bilateral meeting with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in St. Petersburg, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Beijing to step up its pressure on North Korea. Xi replied by pointing to the difficulty of dealing with a country that has nothing left to lose, saying “the barefoot man has nothing to fear from a man wearing shoes.”
Halting shipments of oil and food to North Korea could induce a regime collapse. In such an eventuality, however, China could expect an enormous influx of refugees from North Korea. According to Xi, the bottom line for China remains preventing further unrest, avoiding escalating tensions or any scenario that could spiral out of control.
What, then, needs to be done?
First, South Korea must deploy an anti-ballistic missile system to repel any missile attack from North Korea. China opposes the deployment of such a system, but as long as China remains unable to effectively restrain North Korea’s nuclear tests, it is up to South Korea to proceed with the development of a missile defense system.
Second, the structure for cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea need to be strengthened. This includes setting up a rapid response mechanism to deal with unexpected or destabilizing actions by North Korea. As things currently stand, Japanese nationals living in Seoul risk being deserted in the event of an emergency involving North Korean aggression. When drawing up emergency evacuation plans, Japanese businesses operating in South Korea should appeal to the government in Seoul for cooperation and assistance.
Third, the Group of Seven leaders should discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons problem as a major topic in their May summit, thus intensifying international pressures on Pyongyang.
Fourth, even if the traditional approach of pursuing North Korea’s denuclearization is now dead, efforts should be made to revive the six-party talks that have been stalled since 2009, on the mutual understanding that Pyongyang accepts the inclusion of its denuclearization on the agenda of the talks. However, it would be advisable to convene talks among the other five parties before inviting North Korea back to the bargaining table. Here, the U.S. and China must seek to build up mutual trust, while Washington must also hit the “reset” button on its relations with Moscow.
After Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry demanded an end to China’s “business as usual” approach to North Korea, and urged Beijing to move beyond mere lip service in condemning the tests. He is absolutely correct. At the same time, the U.S. must also reexamine its own form of “business as usual” when it comes to North Korea, and acknowledge the limits of its heretofore passive policy of “strategic patience.” Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear test should serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. as well.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju. The foundation has published a new book, “Sengo Hoshu wa Owatta Noka — Jiminto Seiji no Kiki” (“The End of Japan’s Moderate Conservatism”).