Elsewhere, we documented the cycles of rhetorical—and actual–escalation that followed the missile tests of 2006 and 2009. We found the 2013 version of this dance to be even more vitriolic than in the past, including threats of direct attacks on the US and South Korea. But we thought it would be worthwhile to briefly sum up the reaction to the North Korean reaction and what it might portend for policy going forward. Let’s hope incoming President Park can bring something new to the table, because the other three main protagonists—China, the US and the North—are in deep policy ruts.
The most important question for China is whether it is going to do anything about its ally or not. The Foreign Ministry statement on the sanctions seemed to bend over backward to emphasize the “positive message” of the Resolution, “which calls for peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogue and negotiation,” including through the Six Party Talks. The Foreign Ministry spokesman revisited the point the very next day in light of the National Defense Commission statement that disavowed the September 2005 Joint Statement and declared the Six Party Talks dead for all time. After leading with the standing language for all to remain calm, the spokesman went on to explicitly defend the Six Party Talks and the statement of principles contained in the 2005 document. If the message were not clear, the Foreign Ministry came back to it again in the following exchange on the 26th. Although the language of the answer is word-for-word the same as always, the context of the (self-posed) question reiterates the North Korean bluster in a highly unflattering way, making it clear that Pyongyang is the target of the call for “calm and restraint”:
Q: The DPRK has announced that it will carry out a higher-level nuclear test in the upcoming all-out decisive battle against the United States. What is China’s expectation of the US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davis’ visit to China in this context? The DPRK also threatened a war with the ROK if the latter joined a new round of sanctions against the DPRK. What is China’s comment?
A: The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is very complex and sensitive. We hope relevant parties will bear in mind the bigger picture, remain calm and exercise restraint, further maintain contact and dialogue, improve relations, and refrain from taking actions that may escalate the tension to jointly safeguard peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
But what does it mean for policy? A handful of our colleagues seized on a Global Times piece that appeared to urge China to cut aid to North Korea if they tested. Of course, the Global Times is hardly authoritative, but it does cast light on what might be called the “moderate nationalist” wing of Chinese foreign policy (yes, moderate; it can be a lot worse than you think). On closer reading, the piece in fact provided an incredibly cynical take on the peninsula and even suggested that a festering North Korea problem could have strategic advantages for China. The editorial argues that “China should be more relaxed and reduce our expectations on the effect of our strategies toward the peninsula.” Although suggesting an aid cutoff if North Korea tests, it also says that China should vigorously balance the US by blocking any sanctions that will have serious consequence. We are prepared to believe that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is frustrated with the North, but the perennial question remains: are they really willing to do anything about it?
The US picture is not any more promising. My colleague Marc Noland’s prediction—that the North Korean reaction would lead to another round of “strategic patience”—was largely vindicated by Special Representative Glyn Davies’ remarks in Seoul and Victoria Nuland’s daily press briefing for State. Their statements sounded as formulaic as the Chinese ones. Both reiterated the “dual-track” policy of promising engagement while continuing to apply pressure. But the key point remains the list of things that North Korea has to do before talks can restart. Davies is worth quoting:
“[W]e, the United States of America, are still open to authentic and credible negotiations to implement the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement. We are willing to extend our hand if Pyongyang chooses the path of peace and progress by letting go of its nuclear weapons and its multi-stage missiles. If North Korea comes into compliance with Security Council resolutions and takes irreversible steps leading to denuclearization, the United States said we believe our other partners in the Six-Party process will do the hard work with the DPRK of finding a peaceful way forward.” In addition, Davies warned that “without sustained improvement in inter-Korean relations, U.S.-DPRK ties cannot fundamentally improve.”
Does anyone seriously believe any of these preconditions are going to be met by a Kim Jong Un government that has marketed its new big push strategy around the missile launch paradigm?
Lest there be any doubts on this score, a colleague alerted us to an interesting line buried in a KCNA story on a “consultative meeting” Kim Jong Un chaired with officials in the fields of state security and foreign policy. The war council not only threatened particular actions, but had a much larger and more discouraging message: “security first.” The deteriorating situation has “thrown a grave obstacle to the efforts to be focused by the DPRK on economic construction so that the people may not tighten their belts any longer on the basis of the war deterrence for self-defence provided by leader Kim Jong Il all his life.” If you think China and the US are stuck in ruts, they are nothing compared to Pyongyang’s dead end.
Four more years indeed.