NOTyet Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean, again sparking global fears. Traveling 2,800 miles, this missile test proves Kim Jong Un’s restored will to escalate against the United States and South Korea.
Kim is obviously frustrated with the Biden administration’s decision to ignore North Korea and instead focus on Russia’s war against Ukraine. Hollowing out the central goal of US diplomacy toward his regime, Kim has already urged North Korea to retain its nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, he hopes his variable ability to suspend or postpone missile testing and nuclear escalation will earn him financial concessions. Kim is likely betting that rising tensions over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats will make Washington desperate to avert another crisis and therefore more willing to appease it.
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The United States should, of course, reject such a hypothesis. While the American obsession with the complete denuclearization of North Korea borders on delusional (why would Kim give up what assures him of the regime’s security?), Washington cannot reward North Korean blackmail. This choice would not simply undermine the US security umbrella in the Western Pacific – it would signal US weakness to other more distant adversaries. The correct answer to this test is to strengthen joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States and to engage Japan more fully in regional military activities. The United States could also redeploy the Ronald Reagan carrier strike group (which left South Korea last week) to the Sea of Japan, close to North Korea. At the same time, the United States should also encourage European partners to seize North Korean foreign capital held in their banks.
But the one thing the United States absolutely must not do is ask Beijing for help. The Biden administration must not allow Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government to leverage Kim’s chaos to extract further US concessions for its own interests.
The Chinese Communist Party views international politics through an entirely transactional lens. As its policies on climate change sum up, Beijing never does something just because it is in the interests of both China and the world. Instead, Beijing still uses nominal deeds of global good or interest to secure concessions in other areas. Beijing is now likely to do the same with North Korea, suggesting to Washington it may help put Kim back in his box. As long as, that is, Washington agrees to avoid any further restrictions on US chip exports to China, etc.
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Again, the United States must reject such a scheme. Instead, Washington should draw greater international attention to the fact that China remains the overwhelming economic source of Kim’s ability to hold onto power and maintain his associated patronage circles. This would be particularly relevant for European powers, who are already frustrated by Beijing’s support for Russia in Ukraine, and China’s arrogant dismissal of Western human rights concerns. Moreover, many European economies have close trade ties with South Korea and do not want to see Kim threaten that stability.
Top line: Kim needs to understand that any perceived benefit from her escalation will be outweighed by the costs. And Xi must understand that far from successfully using Kim for his own ends, he will instead share in the ignominy of this senseless association.