The Fifth Test: The Era of Impunity



So many redlines have been crossed by North Korea that it is hard to muster outrage—or intelligent commentary—anymore. What does it mean to say—as Prime Minister Abe did on Friday Tokyo time—that a fifth test is “totally unacceptable”? But ennui is also increasingly problematic, as we are now entering a phase that might best be described as “the era of impunity.” A dictionary definition helps: “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action.”

Earlier in the week (here and here) I reviewed developments in August. A central theme was the way that the THAAD decision—and, of course, the underlying missile development that triggered it—has had a predictable strategic effect. If China is estranged from the US and South Korea over THAAD, then it is unlikely to take a leadership role in trying to resolve the issue, either through diplomacy or sanctions.

But it is pretty clear that China is now the exposed party, particularly given the fact that the new Director General of North American Affairs at the foreign ministry, Choe Son-hui, was reportedly in Beijing earlier in the week. Did she inform the Chinese leadership of the test, approach them for flood aid in her ex-officio role as director of KAPES, or perhaps—in an act of extraordinary hubris—take a stab at both? The byungjin line indeed.

My prediction: we are about to see a much, much more serious discussion not of defensive military options, but of preventive ones.

To state the obvious, the combination of missile and nuclear tests strengthens some simple arguments made by President Obama to President Xi (comments made in Laos, reported in Yonhap):

“I indicated to him that if the THAAD bothered him, particularly since it has no purpose other than defensive and does not change the strategic balance between the United States and China, that they need to work with us more effectively to change Pyongyang's behavior,” noting as well that while sanctions had been imposed there were loopholes that needed to be closed.

But the president also nicely stated the dilemmas for American diplomacy, fundamental limits to what the US can do given the current state of play in Pyongyang:

"It's not as if we are looking for a problem, or avoiding a willingness to engage diplomatically. But diplomacy requires that Pyongyang meet its international obligations. Not only is it failing to meet those international obligations, it's not even suggesting that they have any intention to do so anytime in the future regardless of the inducements that might be put on the table."

Perfectly put. We had almost reached a point where if Wang Yi had come up with a plan, the administration might have obliged, or at least come under pressure to do so. But in the wake of the nuclear and missile tests, that case is vanishingly hard to make. Put differently, China’s diplomacy in the wake of the test is a lot more difficult than South Korea’s or the United States’. In particular, Beijing is going to come under pressure to negotiate yet another UNSC Resolution, and not the timid statements that have been emanating from the body.

In the South, the public and political class is divided on THAAD as they are on engagement with the North more generally; the latest ASAN poll however shows pro-THAAD opinion at 54% to 36% against. Whether the underlying positions will be subject to much change in the long-term is hard to tell, but if so, this will push it in a pro-THAAD direction. (As we were putting this to bed, Yonhap reported that Presidents Park and Obama had talked) Moreover, continued missile tests have already started to thaw trilateral cooperation with Japan and the US; Elizabeth Shim at UPI has good coverage. This week, the three countries held new talks on military intelligence sharing.

Finally, there is—in Churchill’s description of Russia—“the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I have already offered my moral hazard theory of the case: the central problem is impunity. But that is too simple. That this test came on National Day is not coincidental. The nuclear weapons and missile programs are increasingly core to the regime’s political operating system. The byungjin line was not a feint toward economic reform. Rather, it is exactly what it says it is, namely, the enshrined belief that North Korea can simultaneously pursue nuclear weapons and economic development. Who, exactly, is proving them wrong? 

My prediction: we are about to see a much, much more serious discussion not of defensive military options, but of preventive ones.

(Kudos to Joseph Bermudez and Jack Liu at 38North for seeing this coming, if only by a day).

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