HONOLULU – North Korea-related events have been capturing the headlines with alarming frequency in recent weeks. The most intriguing saga, the Feb. 13 assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia, continues to unfold. It quickly overshadowed the most significant event, the Feb. 12 launch of a solid-fueled Pukguksong-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), theoretically capable of hitting targets as far away as U.S. bases in Okinawa and Guam with minimal warning.
In case the message from this launch was missed, the North on March 6 fired a salvo of four modified medium-range Scud missiles into the Sea of Japan. According to Pyongyang, the units firing the missiles are tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. “imperialist aggressor” forces in Japan in contingency. (North Korea is well aware that U.S. access to Japan bases is critical to the defense of South Korea.)
Scud launches, while troublesome (and another United Nations Security Council violation), are not unprecedented and are frequently used to signal Pyongyang’s discontent over South Korea-U.S. military exercises like the one currently underway in the South. The Pukguksong-2 launch, while still not the promised (by Kim Jong Un) intercontinental ballistic missile test that then-President-elect Donald Trump tweeted “won’t happen,” presents a serious new challenge which fully justifies the accelerated deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea.
Also in the news was Beijing’s announcement that, in accordance with UNSC resolution 2321, it was terminating coal purchases from the North for the remainder of the year (their annual quota having been reached). This welcomed news, if true, would cut off an important source of hard currency for the North. Of note, the Chinese announcement was made, not after either of the missile launches, but soon after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been living under Chinese protection in Macau. This tells you everything you need to know about China’s strident protests and attempted economic blackmail against South Korea over its joint decision to expedite the deployment of THAAD defensive missile systems to South Korea.
If Beijing were really worried about THAAD, it would have taken punitive action immediately after the Pukguksong-2 IRBM launch and would have been calling for increased sanctions after ballistic missile test and/or in response to the most recent Scud firings. It did not and has not; while the UNSC issued its usual (toothless) strong letter of protest, it is safe to predict Beijing will once again attempt to water down any new UNSC sanctions.
This leads to the inescapable conclusion that Beijing’s THAAD protests have little to do with Chinese security concerns — the Pacific Forum, among others, has provided Chinese officials with in-depth briefings on THAAD showing minimal threat to China’s second-strike capability — and everything to do with China’s desire to stir up political unrest and anti-American feelings in South Korea. With the Constitutional Court’s decision confirming South Korean President Park Guen-hye’s impeachment forcing new presidential elections within the next 60 days, Beijing is now applying a full-court press.
While international press attention remains focused on the diplomatic confrontation between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang over Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, insufficient attention is being paid to the dangerous (and illegal under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention) use of the deadly VX nerve agent in a crowded public space. There are a dozen or more ways North Korea could have killed Kim. So what message was Pyongyang trying to send by using a chemical agent so powerful as to be branded a weapon of mass destruction?
At a minimum, Pyongyang is warning the rest of the world that it is capable, and willing, to employ more than one WMD not just in defense or retaliation for an attack, but aggressively in pursuit of more limited objectives. Even if North Korea could be persuaded or compelled to give up its nuclear program — and the prospects for that are already pretty slim — it possesses other means of wreaking havoc, along with the political will to use them.
As a result of these various acts of aggression, pundits are calling on the Trump administration to expedite its Korea policy review while demanding a tougher stance against Pyongyang. They are half-right. A firm international response is required to this latest series of UNSC resolution violations and Washington should be, and apparently is, leading the effort to secure even tighter sanctions. In cooperation with Seoul it has also rushed deployment of THAAD to South Korea, another prudent move, disingenuous Chinese complaints notwithstanding.
But the Trump administration’s North Korea policy review should not be rushed; it’s more important to do it right than quickly. To be effective, any U.S. policy toward North Korea must also be in sync with South Korea’s policy and, until the South’s election is over, South Korean policy is adrift. In addition, announcing a new U.S. policy during the presidential campaign in South will guarantee that it becomes enmeshed in the domestic political process, which could lock candidates into positions that could prove counterproductive in the long run.
A tightening and stricter enforcement of sanctions is certainly called for now, as are increased defensive measures on the peninsula. But any new policy approaches or initiatives must await the selection of a new South Korean president, and must then be closely coordinated with the new South Korean administration and with the U.S.’ ally Japan.
Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.
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