Trilateral meetings in Washington last week amongst U.S., South Korean, and Japanese officials affirmed there is no daylight whatsoever amongst the allies in their policy toward North Korea. Pyongyang has burned so many bridges over the years that now no ally is willing to re-engage before the regime proves through actions that it has changed its policy and behavior.
The Obama administration sees no benefit to yet another diplomatic foray because all previous attempts at dialogue with Pyongyang failed spectacularly. Instead, Washington prefers sitting back and letting South Korea take the lead for now.
U.S. policymakers are comfortable with President Park Geun-hye’s trustpolitik policy, seeing it as a principled, pragmatic process for establishing incremental reciprocal actions with North Korea. Washington is reassured by her initial emphasis on enhancing South Korean military capacities to deter further North Korean attacks.
If Pyongyang were to respond positively, Seoul would offer ever larger benefits. But, the recent collapse of the proposed inter-Korean ministerial talks soured an already skeptical Seoul on diplomacy with Pyongyang.
To be sure, there will be further attempts at diplomatic meetings to probe North Korean willingness to at least tacitly agree to denuclearization which is, after all, the primary objective of the Six Party Talks. But probing is quite different to negotiating. The allies are adamant in their decision to hold their ground and wait for North Korea to change. The allies don’t expect diplomacy will be effective and instead are seeking to augment pressure on Kim Jong-un.
The key unknown factor is China. Beijing has changed its policy toward Pyongyang though far less than most China watchers believe. It has strengthened its rhetoric and implemented some sanctions and measures, similar to what it did in the mid-2000s before later loosening them.
Despite reports of Chinese anger at North Korean provocations, Beijing continues to simply advocate a return to the Six-Party Talks, despite Pyongyang’s repeated assertions that it will never under any circumstances abandon its nuclear weapons.
Following the U.S.-China summit, the White House claimed that Beijing had agreed to increase pressure on North Korea. Yet, Chinese statements post-summit still don’t contain any reference to pressure on North Korea. Instead, Beijing blandly “reaffirms China’s persistence in keeping peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula” and that “China adheres to the principle that the issue be solved through dialogue and consultation.”
This leaves both the allies and North Korea trying to woo China to be more or less inclined to increase pressure on Pyongyang. Beijing typically likes to remain on the fence, calling upon on all parties to exercise restraint and return to dialogue irrespective of North Korean aggression.
President Park should use her summit meeting with President Xi Jinping to emphasize that the real test of how much Beijing’s policy has actually changed is the degree to which it is willing to implement rather than obstruct international sanctions against North Korean violations and illegal activities. Park should insist that Beijing step up pressure on Pyongyang, explaining that this is in China’s interest since otherwise Pyongyang will only be emboldened to continue instigating the crisis along with robust allied responses — that Beijing seeks to avoid.
Without imposing more effective punitive measures, waiting for Pyongyang to abandon its decades-long quest for nuclear weapons is a Godot-like exercise in futility. Kim Jong-un will simply continue expanding and refining his nuclear arsenal, and the means to deliver them.
Pyongyang typically alternates threats with charm offensives and it is only a matter of time before its failure to gain objectives through dialogue will result in a return to belligerence. A concern is that Kim Jong-un, having exhausted a litany of old and new threats earlier this year, may feel compelled to raise the stakes further through another tactical attack.
But for now, we’re likely to have several months of sunny skies, with the growing likelihood of another storm by year’s end.
-Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Korea Times