SEOUL—Four years ago, the U.S. and its allies won the support of Russia and China to bring tough sanctions against North Korea in response to an intercontinental-ballistic missile launch. Now,
But it’s a different world, and the U.S. has fewer options to respond.
“This is like the Cold War, in the sense we’ve reverted,” said
a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The point is that the job is harder because there are tools missing from the toolbox.”
North Korea’s 2017 ICBM launch—with an estimated range far enough to reach the U.S. mainland—was seen as clearly out of bounds, even in the eyes of its close allies in Beijing and Moscow. The long-range test resulted in caps to North Korea’s fuel imports and a repatriation of overseas laborers who earned foreign currency for the regime. The invasion of Ukraine has left little room for agreement at the United Nations among the world’s major powers.
With Russia and China expected to block any sweeping penalties at the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. faces limited, and likely less effective, options to slow North Korea’s nuclear pursuits. The Biden administration can bring pressure through unilateral sanctions, military posturing and tighter coordination with allies—all actions the U.S. has taken recently, including in the aftermath of Thursday’s ICBM launch.
discussed North Korea’s ICBM launch with Japanese Prime Minister
on the sidelines of the NATO and Group of Seven gathering in Brussels. It was part of a series of senior-level U.S. outreach about Pyongyang’s provocation over the past day with allies, including between Secretary of State
with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.The White House criticized the new test, though left the door open to talks.
The incoming South Korean administration, which takes power in May, promises a tougher line on North Korea’s weapons tests and to improve frayed relations with Japan. South Korea’s president-electYoon Suk-yeol, in a Facebook post on Friday, issued a warning to the Kim regime: “There is nothing that can be gained from provocations.”
South Korea said it had also conducted a rare training of its F-35A stealth fighter aircraft on Friday, in a sign of the country’s military readiness posture.
Mr. Kim has said the U.S. is his country’s biggest enemy and has seen no shift under Mr. Biden. The two sides haven’t held formal talks in more than two years and remain far apart on when, and even how, North Korea would relinquish its arsenal. At Thursday’s ICBM launch, Mr. Kim pushed officials to bolster the country’s nuclear war deterrence for the “longstanding confrontation with the U.S. imperialists.”
North Korea’s 38-year-old, third-generation dictator is likely to be taking lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine—from the deterrence wielded by Moscow because it possesses nuclear weapons to the vulnerability of Kyiv after surrendering them, close Pyongyang watchers say. But Mr. Kim is also closely monitoring what countermoves the U.S. and its allies can summon against Russia.
That includes a U.N. resolution that demanded Russia withdraw all its troops and halt its attack on Ukraine, said
a Kim regime leadership expert at CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit think tank. Pyongyang cast one of the few votes in opposition to the resolution, which was ultimately vetoed by Russia.
“North Korea is starting to get an idea of what the parameters are and where they can escalate,” Mr. Gause said. “They can fire missiles until the cows come home and the U.S. will never be able to get their act together and get enough world support to turn the screws on them.”
Pyongyang has recently been working to tidy its relations with Moscow and Beijing. Senior North Korean and Russian officials met in Moscow this week to discuss bilateral ties amid a shifting world order. Pyongyang’s foreign ministry has said the root cause for the Ukrainian crisis sits with the “hegemonic policy of the U.S. and the West.”
After the conclusion of the Beijing Olympics, Mr. Kim sent a personal message to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, urging the two countries to create an invincible relationship that frustrates the “undisguised hostile policy and military threat of the U.S. and its satellite forces.” Mr. Xi sent a response back, pledging a readiness to work together.
It should come as no surprise that North Korea would seek again to take advantage of the political gridlock at the U.N. Security Council, said
a former member of the U.N. panel of experts group that monitors North Korea sanctions enforcement.
“It already has been doing so for some time,” she said.
North Korea has unleashed 11 missile tests this year. Before Thursday, it had refrained from a full-scale ICBM launch since Mr. Kim pledged in April 2018 to halt such activity as a down payment for talks.
Months after a second round of nuclear talks with the U.S. had abruptly broken down in Hanoi in February 2019, North Korea turned back to shorter-range missile tests. The initial launches drew a muted response from the Trump administration, which pointed to the absence of ICBM launches or nuclear tests as signs their approach was working.
By January 2020, Mr. Kim said he no longer felt bound by his self-imposed moratorium and urged North Korea to prepare for a protracted period under sanctions. Then Covid-19 emerged in neighboring China, prompting North Korea to seal off its borders. Cross-border trade faltered. Floods wiped out crop production. The pandemic punched North Korea’s economy in a way that sanctions hadn’t.
At an October 2020 military parade, North Korea unveiled the new, mammoth-sized Hwasong-17 ICBM for the first time, rolling it through downtown Pyongyang. Mr. Kim made prominent mention of the missile in a speech in January 2021, as he outlined the country’s five-year policy for strategic weapons, which included plans for hypersonic technology, spy satellites and submarine-launched missiles.
The Kim regime stayed relatively quiet last year. Then, starting in January, North Korea accelerated its weapons activity at a historic clip. The country’s Politburo warned it could resume major tests.
This month, North Korea appeared to have resumed reconstruction of its main nuclear-test site, while Mr. Kim ordered renovations to its main satellite-launch facility. Then, on Thursday, came the ICBM launch that North Korean state media called a “fruition of self-reliance.”
After North Korea resumed shorter-range weapons tests in 2019, the U.S. response was largely a lowest-common-denominator approach that either outright accepted the behavior or offered a pro-forma protest at best, said
a former U.S. intelligence official on North Korea.
The U.S. opted not to take bolder moves to halt North Korea’s weapons advances, such as offering sanctions relief as an incentive or enforcing secondary sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with Kim regime entities, Mr. Garlauskas said.
The steps Washington did take, from the heated rhetoric during 2017 and a pair of inconclusive nuclear summits, were “all actually pretty low in terms of costs and risks accepted,” Mr. Garlauskas said. The faith by U.S. officials that China could be relied upon to help restrain North Korea was also too strong, he added.
“The increasing number and sophistication of North Korean weapons tests in recent weeks underscores how mistaken this view was,” said Mr. Garlauskas, who is now a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
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