Commentary / World

Kim is challenging the U.S., not the entire world

by Doug Bandow

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un continues his confrontational course. After conducting his nation’s fifth nuclear test, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared it to be a “direct challenge to the entire international community.”

But this is complete hooey, to use a technical term. It’s about time for the “international community” to stop acting as if there really is an international community. And especially that any of the many bad guys around the globe pay the slightest attention to that mythical body.

There’s certainly no consensus of the world’s 7.4 billion people behind whatever policy the U.S. government, let alone Carter, might advocate. Even more, it’s fair to assume that Kim isn’t much concerned about what the “international community” thinks, let alone intends to “challenge” it.

Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, has more specific foreign targets in mind. North Korea faces manifold threats and potential threats. The “international community” is not one of them. The United Nations Security Council might impose sanctions, but that body is only a tool of its members, and enforcement is possible only through them.

So Pyongyang adopts the perfectly sensible policy of targeting those countries, not the fantasy “international community.” Why nukes? It’s not hard to figure out.

First, and most important, there’s the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Deterring the U.S. is no easy task, especially for the government of an impoverished, sometimes starving society; nuclear weapons are about the cheapest, most effective means of doing so.

After all, Washington’s proclivity for regime change does not run to nuclear powers. Indian army officials made this observation after the first Gulf war. The North was brutally dismissive of Moammar Gadhafi’s decision to give up his nuclear and missile programs; Pyongyang made clear that it would not make a similar mistake.

While the U.S. might be the main target — in a deterrent sense, not for a suicidal first strike — it is not the only one. Japan, though only slowly abandoning its pacifist heritage, remains distrusted, even hated, by Pyongyang (as well as South Korea). Also on the North’s naughty list, ironically, are its traditional allies, Russia and China.

The North began its nuclear program during the Cold War, when it still could theoretically rely upon support from both China and Soviet Union. But North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung jealously guarded his regime’s independence. Only nuclear weapons would free the North of reliance on its supposed friends.

Moreover, these days it’s not so clear either qualifies as a friend. The Soviet-Pyongyang relationship essentially ruptured after the end of the Cold War, when Moscow established diplomatic relations with Seoul. Although bilateral relations recently rebounded, Russia remains a minor player in Korean affairs.

In contrast, China plays a much larger role in North Korean affairs, and therefore is resented much more in Pyongyang. Chinese enterprises heavily invest in and trade with the North; one reason offered for the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle nearly three years ago was the “selling of precious resources of the country for cheap prices” to China.

Beijing pressured all three Kim regimes to reform the economy and abandon the nuclear program. Pyongyang consistently dismissed China’s advice, sometimes in humiliating fashion. The two countries might better be referred to as “frenemies” than allies.

Although it is difficult to imagine North Korea ever using nuclear weapons against China, once the former possesses a viable arsenal it will be largely independent of China’s influence. Although Beijing still could cut off energy and food assistance, the collapse of North Korea if it possessed a sizable arsenal could be truly catastrophic. China would be more hostage than master of its much smaller neighbor.

The North also uses its nuclear program to extort benefits from its neighbors — most notably South Korea, China and Japan — as well as America. Finally, nukes provide Pyongyang with prestige, perhaps the only sense in which the program is meant to challenge the “international community.”

If Washington and its allies hope to halt the North Korean nuclear program, they will have to address the actual purpose of the North’s activities, and not blame them on some mythical attack on the world. Even then, there is little reason to believe that Pyongyang is inclined to yield its existing nuclear weapons under any circumstances. But better to try without having any illusions about the role of the “international community.”

A senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Doug Bandow is author of “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World” and co-author of “The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.” He often writes on military non-interventionism.