Author: Aidan Foster-Carter, Leeds University
North Korea’s relations with the wider world have taken a tangible turn for the worse. Pyongyang’s double whammy of a nuclear test on 6 January 2016 followed by a satellite launch on 7 February 2016 was arguably nothing new. The Kim regime has conducted both kinds of tests regularly for a decade, each time condemned and sanctioned by the UN Security Council (UNSC). There was no reason to hope Kim Jong-un was about to change his spots.
The difference now is that two major interlocutors have lost patience. South Korea and the United States have had enough of North Korea’s recidivism. Seoul surprised everyone, including Pyongyang, by shutting the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) — the last remaining inter-Korean joint venture, just north of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), where 54,000 Northern workers worked very cheaply for 124 Southern SMEs.
The US Congress, with rare speed and bipartisan unanimity, passed a new bill imposing bilateral sanctions far tougher than before, including provisions to target foreign firms doing business with the DPRK. And though it took almost two months for the UNSC to agree on its own sanctions, amid public sparring between the US and China, the eventual resolution (UNSCR 2270) passed unanimously on 2 March is much tougher than any before or than many expected.
Significantly, and sadly, Kaesong’s closure ends the last vestige of the ‘sunshine’ era of inter-Korean engagement. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, while promising ‘trustpolitik’, had also called for unification in ways that did not seem to treat the DPRK as a partner. In 2013, soon after taking office, she worked hard to revive the KIC after North Korea withdrew its workforce. It reopened under new rules, drafted and insisted on by South Korea, pledging explicitly and unconditionally that it would never again be allowed to fall victim to wider inter-Korean vicissitudes.
So why the reversal now? President Park’s speech to the ROK National Assembly on 16 February seethed with frustration at what she called Kim Jong-un’s ‘runaway’ regime. Park has given up on Kim, and the feeling is mutual. Both sides have switched their propaganda loudspeakers back on, making life a headache (quite literally) for Koreans unlucky enough to live near the border — on whichever side.
Two further factors will keep tensions on the peninsula high, at least in the short term. One is a second strand of UN censure, this time for appalling human rights abuses. The procedural aftermath of 2014’s Commission of Inquiry continues to rumble on, including moves to refer the DPRK — perhaps even Kim Jong-un personally — to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. While this is extremely unlikely given China and Russia’s veto power, it will heighten the Kim regime’s fears of an imperialist plot to persecute it.
A sharper threat are the US–ROK war games which kicked off on 7 March. ‘Foal Eagle’, one of the world’s largest regular military exercises, continues until 30 April; Pyongyang routinely denounces this as a rehearsal for invasion. This year’s is the biggest ever, with massive participation of US forces and equipment as a show of force. The risk is that shock and awe might backfire and the Kim regime will further justify its own well-rehearsed paranoia regarding US intentions.
Assuming this passes without mishap, May will bring North Korea’s big event of the year: the first full Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 35 years. It will see younger cadres promoted, and personnel changes will be scrutinised for policy clues. On that front, Kim’s slogan byungjin — literally meaning tandem, and proclaiming the necessity of both a nuclear weapons program and economic development — is not expected to change. Although ‘guns or butter’ is a classic textbook trope, so far Kim Jong-un seems to have managed — as one US wit put it — to have his yellowcake and eat it too. The new sanctions will make that harder.
Contemplating a tense year on the peninsula, it is worth asking whether the hawkish new mood in Washington and Seoul may have misjudged Pyongyang’s motives. The latest Kim is still cementing his succession and power. As such, nuclear tests and satellites are what the DPRK does. In a system that prizes loyalty and fidelity above all else, Kim Jong-un may have had no choice but to prove himself a faithful ‘son of a gun’ by dutifully forging ahead on both those fronts.
Exasperation with North Korea is understandable, but it is an emotional reaction rather than a strategy and ignores fundamental geopolitical realities. Unless the Kim regime finally goads Beijing once too often, China’s support shows little sign of stopping — for fear of the chaos that would follow if the DPRK were to collapse.
A year from now, the United States will have a new president and, a further year on, so will South Korea. Both incumbents may have given up on North Korea, but their successors can hardly avoid a return to diplomacy in some form sooner or later. The DPRK nut will get no easier to crack.
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs.
An extended version of this article first appeared, and is used with the kind permission of, NewNations.com.