What happens next on North Korea?

Photo: Uri Tours/Wikimedia Commons

Tensions between China, America and North Korea have reached boiling point in the Pacific as Pyongyang’s man threatens thermonuclear war.

By Francesca Ross

War is close in the Korean Peninsula claimed a senior North Korean diplomat in a sabre-rattling New York press conference last week. Kim In-ryong, the Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, warned the United States of a thermonuclear showdown. America had seriously threatened the peace and security of the peninsula, he said.

Hours later American Vice-President Pence was meeting Shinzo Abe in Tokyo as the two looked for a solution to the Pyongyang problem. “While all options are on the table,” the American second-in-command explained, “President Trump is determined to work closely with Japan [on the North Korean issue], with South Korea, with all our allies in the region, and with China.”

China’s support is vital in establishing what happens next

The mention of China is both unusual and important. Russia and China have always traded with North Korea despite international sanctions. The two nations account for over three-quarters of the country’s trade. Beijing has the ability to single-handedly shut down food and energy supply for North Korea, says one expert.

This relationship has held fast for decades but President Xi Jinping appears to have run out of patience as tensions rapidly escalate. Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney explained this illustrated China’s strange position in this battle of ideology.

“Even before the United States upped the tempo, China was in the unusual position of having really very bad relations with both the North and the South – that is something of an accomplishment,” he said. “Its peninsula policy was in tatters, and things have only got worse since.”

The Chinese leadership has recognised that action must be taken against North Korea’s increasing levels of aggression. That does not mean, however, that President Xi is a willing partner in an anti-North Korean coalition. Xi is not a fan of South Korea either. He has imposed a series of sanctions on the country following the announcement they would push forward on a US-sponsored missile system.

Japan will work with the United States to manage the threat from North Korea

America’s alliance with Japan, however, is “rock-solid,” Pence explained. “We seek peace always as a country, as does Japan, but as you know and the United States knows, peace comes through strength and we will stand strongly with Japan and strongly with our allies for a peace and security in this region.” China needed to play a larger role in the North Korea problem, a Japanese government spokesman added.

America’s ideal solution is that its North East Asian partners push to neutralise the threat from Kim Jong Un and Trump does not need to get his hands dirty. There would be little opposition for this. Kim’s missile launches consistently fail and Japan’s defence forces are the strongest in the region. The confrontation in the region is not truly with North Korea’s leader; it is between China’s weak militant tendencies and an irate America that is calling for blood.

These are testing times for the new President Trump. His decision to launch strikes against Syria has already pushed that conflict further towards a proxy war between Washington and Moscow. He must now also be strong on issues in the Pacific. If he is not careful he will sleepwalk into another complicated proxy war with China.

ASEAN nations would benefit from a joint position behind Indonesia and Malaysia

ASEAN has traditionally been welcoming to North Korea. Singapore sent US$28.3 million of consumer goods to North Korea in 2015. Thailand sent items worth US$73.8 million. The country has also joined the group’s regional discussions, has embassies in eight ASEAN nations and North Korean officials have been welcomed on tours of more than one of the bloc’s member states.

But with war being threatened on all sides, in words or in actions, the big players in ASEAN will need to take a stand. A meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers has expressed “grave concerns” over Pyongyang’s behaviour.

Professor Park Sung Kwan of Kyungnam University, told The Straits Times, “Strategically, Indonesia and Vietnam are the important countries to North Korea because it understands that the two countries are the strongest nations in the region in terms of their political influence.” Malaysia used to be another important ally but the killing of Kim Jong Nam on Malaysian territory has fractured that relationship beyond repair.

Government leaders will be discussing what to do next when they meet this month

North Korea’s threatening behaviour will be on the agenda of the next ASEAN meeting in Manila, the bloc’s Filipino presidency has just announced. This may not mean very much. “ASEAN is unlikely to have a joint response that goes deeper than rhetoric,” said North Korea expert, Andrea Berger.

In fact, there is an easy road for Southeast Asian leaders to take; a common agreement to properly enforce the existing United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang. No more millions of dollars in trade. No more coal. No more cosy official visits. The threat of nuclear war is in the air. ASEAN governments need to come together for the good of the region, and us all.