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.
In his new year address this year, Kim Jong-un boasted that the rocket launch “clearly showed that [North] Korea does what it is determined to do.” Implied by this statement, was Pyongyang’s rejection of the Security Council resolutions which ban “all missile activity” by North Korea, including “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”
Pyongyang does not fear Security Council resolutions because there have been few consequences when it violates them. Had previous resolutions been strictly enforced, North Korea would have been incapable of firing one long-range ballistic missile last year.
China’s refusal to allow harsh sanctions has rendered the Security Council impotent in dealing with Pyongyang, forcing Washington, Seoul and others to act unilaterally.
All eyes will now be on New York to see if the current Security Council debate will result in meaningful, enforceable sanctions in response to this latest violation, or if the new Chinese leadership will continue the current farce.
A new, more creative approach is needed in dealing with North Korea and its missile and nuclear weapons challenge.
The Pacific Forum’s founder, 96-year-old retired Rear Admiral Lloyd “Joe” Vasey, has suggested one option: A mini Marshall Plan for North Korea that offers real incentives for cooperation, economic reform and denuclearization with credible consequences if Pyongyang rejects or reneges on this bargain.
The problem is not with the incentives: Pyongyang has willingly accepted them before. However, if the consequences for failing to live up to its end of the bargain are not credible — and thus far they have not been — the end result of any new approach will be watching the North Koreans take the money and run again.
The new leadership in China under Xi has an opportunity to restore the Security Council’s credibility by demonstrating to Pyongyang that its rejection of international norms and obligations has real consequences.
This will not only send a strong message to Pyongyang that future violations (such as a nuclear test) will not be tolerated. It will also set the stage for more creative approaches to dealing with the overall challenge once leadership transitions in China, Japan and South Korea are complete and the new foreign policy team is in place in Washington.
Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and senior editor of “Comparative Connections,” a quarterly electronic journal.