North Korea’s new supreme leader Kim Jong-un conducted two missile tests last year. The first, in April, failed. The second, in December, was by all accounts a huge success.
However, it was not just a test of North Korea’s ability to put an object into space. Kim’s second test was also the first test of the new Chinese leadership. To date, it would appear that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary-General and Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) has passed Kim’s test with flying colors — at least in North Korea’s eyes. The rest of us are not too sure.
Some have argued that we should not have been so quick to judge Kim and his policies by last year’s April rocket launch or the Feb. 29 Leap Day Agreement that preceded, and was subsequently undermined by, that missile firing. Both actions had clearly been mandated by his father, Kim Jong-il, before he died, and these dying wishes had to be honored. That logic no longer applies.
While the North still proclaimed that the December launch was carrying out “the last instructions” of the “Dear Leader,” this decision rests squarely on Kim Jong-un’s shoulders. Those hoping that the “Boy General” would lead his country in a new, less confrontational direction will need to await another sign.
Alas, those hoping that the new Chinese leadership would be more willing to hold Pyongyang accountable for its actions have also been left disappointed.
While it is true that Xi will not formally take the reins of government until he is sworn in as president this spring, it seems he is already calling the shots as head of the party, the Central Military Commission and the CCP’s Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, which exercises supervision over foreign affairs.
As a result, watching how China responds to the December missile activity at the UN Security Council and elsewhere will tell us if a new, more balanced Chinese approach toward Pyongyang is on the cards under Xi’s leadership. Thus far, it appears not.
The Security Council was quick to condemn the launch, branding it “a clear violation” of council resolutions, a statement lauded by US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice as “one of the swiftest and strongest — if not the swiftest and strongest — that this council has issued.” However, this condemnation did not come in the form of a binding council resolution or even a presidential statement but in a toothless UN Security Council press statement on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
That Dec. 12 statement further asserted that “the Security Council will continue consultations on an appropriate response, in accordance with its responsibilities given the urgency of the matter.”
We are still waiting for the “appropriate response.” As Rice said at the time: “Members of the council must now work in a concerted fashion to send a clear message that [North Korea’s] violations of UN Security Council resolutions have consequences.”
Five weeks later, we are still waiting to hear these consequences. So much for a sense of “urgency.” The hang-up is the veto-wielding China, which has blocked any meaningful action, arguing that the response should be “prudent and moderate.”
Some believe that a strong UN Security Council response may result in a harsh North Korean response, most likely in the form of a nuclear weapons test; preparations for such a test appear under way at their underground test facility. However, if Pyongyang has already decided that it wants or needs another test, it will conduct one regardless of what the Security Council says or does. If it cannot blame the UN, it can always blame Washington’s or Seoul’s hostile policy.