We need to discard or substantively revise old scripts to make sure that words and sanctions aren’t ignored in Pyongyang. Otherwise, like what happens to Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, the cycle will repeat itself—and the repetition itself will become the new normal.
There have been a few changes this time around in response to the alleged H-bomb test and the possibility of a rocket launch, and most of them would destabilize the region even more. The call for South Korea to develop its own nuclear arsenal (and not just rely on the U.S. security umbrella) has re-emerged and is gaining traction. After the February 2013 North Korean nuclear test, polls showed about 60 percent of respondents in South Korea believing their country should go nuclear. A Korea Gallup Poll revealed on January 15, 2016, that 54 percent favor developing nuclear weapons, with 38 percent against. But this time, more political leaders are also joining the nuclear bandwagon.
In Japan, the missile-defense system and naval destroyers have been readied to shoot down incoming North Korean missiles, providing the Japanese government with a useful justification for an offense-capable military establishment and posture to face urgent contingencies.
The trouble is, Kim Jong Un’s regime is determined to advancing its nuclear ambition. His mentality means international “punishments” don’t deter him or his leadership. If sanctions reduce the volume of luxury goods available to Kim’s supporters, who would complain, lest his or her head roll like those of so many others in recent years? Dry up North Korea’s access to financial networks to slow down the nuclear program? The regime will squeeze its population more. Yesterday just keeps repeating itself.
Well-targeted sanctions and enforcement are no doubt in order. In addition to reducing access to hard cash, reducing the availability of materials for the nuclear program is key. However, much of the flow goes across the Chinese-North Korean border—not because the Chinese government wishes it, but because export controls in China are weak. Even legitimate trade in parts and technology, for example, between Germany and China, gets diverted to the North.
The United States and South Korea have repeatedly expected China to produce a better-behaved DPRK. But the United States was wrong from the outset, starting with the George W. Bush administration, to rely on China. The country’s own interests, not bilateral ties and regional stability, are what drive Beijing when it comes to the DPRK. Unless Chinese territory, the health of its citizens (through radiation exposure), and political stability are threatened, China will not act. We have no idea what the Chinese red line would be.
Inside North Korea, new realities aren’t auspicious for international cooperation. Kim Jong Un is not his father, Kim Jong Il. With the latter, other countries might have been able to negotiate a nuclear freeze or reduction in the long term, because the nuclear program was a means to an end: getting security assurances from the United States and economic access internationally. America had a genuine opening toward this end at the close of the Bill Clinton administration. But Kim Jong Un may not have a clear sense of means and ends, nor of the complexities of geopolitics and diplomacy. He seems to want nukes for the sake of nukes, without a clear strategic or diplomatic goal; more and faster is better.