No sooner do we go on vacation then the world goes to hell in a handbasket. More seriously, developments on the Korean peninsula are not good, and the problems have to do with growing rifts between the US and Korea on the one hand and China on the other. THAAD is the manifestation of these rifts, not its cause. Nonetheless, both sides are shutting down, believing the other has no interest in solving the problem.
Moreover, these developments unfold in the broader regional context of the aftermath of the Hague ruling on Philippine claims in the South China Sea and the quiet but persistent Chinese pressure on the Senkakus/Diaoyus. Rather than constituting separate—and separable—problems, the Korean peninsula is now being seen as just one sub-theater in a broader deterioration in regional and US-China security relations.
In such a setting, the only party that benefits is North Korea; indeed, it is hard to avoid the speculation that the regime is doing everything in its power to foster just such division. The only way around the problem is some creative trilateral diplomacy on the part of China, the US and South Korea, with Japan also playing an important role. In this two-part post, I review some of the most important recent developments, starting today with those in North and South Korea and continuing on Wednesday with the US, China and some possible solutions.
Let’s get first to the true culprit in this drama: North Korea. It is increasingly clear that the analytic community has tended to underestimate North Korean missile capabilities. In a “just the facts ma’am” account at NKNews, Uzi Rabin, one of Israel’s leading experts on missiles and missile defenses, offers a catalogue of North Korea’s developments just over the course of this year:
“In the last 10 months alone, we have seen a second satellite launch aboard the giant Unha rocket, the unveiling of a second generation (yet untested) ICBM, a close-up of what is described as an implosion nuclear warhead for ballistic missiles, a live test of a supposedly indigenous air defense missile – which looks like a twin brother of the Russian S-300—a flight test of the hitherto mysterious ‘Musudan’ IRBM, and an underwater launch of a solid propellant SLBM – which looks like the twin brother of the vintage Soviet liquid propellant SSN 6.
In between, we have been treated to the sights of at least two live exercises of North Korea’s operational Scud C and Rodong missiles, as well as high quality photographs of missile technology tests, such as a static test of a large solid propellant rocket, a static test of a liquid propellant motor assembly and an ablation test of a nose tip of a large ballistic missile.”
Rabin notes that all of these developments have become much more transparent, as has the claim of the underlying objective: to achieve a secure second-strike capability through pursuit of the road-mobile Musudan and submarine capabilities. Yet the purposes are clearly not simply defensive, the usual statements accompanying the onset of the US-Korea joint exercises notwithstanding. The aims include poking the Five Parties and demonstrating to domestic audiences the audacious leadership of the Young General.
The biggest development in August was the test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew about 500 kilometers and landed in Japan’s ADIZ (see Newsweek for over-the-top North Korean coverage); a test earlier in the month actually landed in Japan’s EEZ. Jeffrey Lewis, our favorite missile analyst, states the obvious: the missile appeared to work, either achieving its full range or perhaps even on a lofted trajectory demonstrating still greater range.
Yet as always, North Korea was generating mixed signals. Should the country be understood in terms of nuclear and missile capabilities, high-rise apartments and shopping malls in Pyongyang, ongoing marketization and even a man on the moon? Or was the place showing signs of falling apart? The main bit of evidence for the second proposition in August was an apparent string of high-level defections, starting with Thae Yong-ho out of London and including two to six other diplomatic defectors; it may be some time until the true number is known as intelligence tracks are covered (NPR and Hankyoreh for exemplary coverage). Nor are defections limited to the elite: although the numbers remain pathetically small (only 749 in the first half), Yonhap reports that this is up dramatically from just over 600 in the first half of 2015.
Elite defection may signal nothing more than personal choices; concerns about the futures of sons and daughters living abroad that they may have clustered in a random walk. But they might also reflect the effects of sanctions. It is well-known that overseas diplomats are tasked with remitting funds. But as due diligence expands in jurisdictions such as Europe, it becomes harder to generate cash. A quiet—and underestimated—example: European action last year against the Korean National Insurance Company, a notorious fraudster (see see Kim Kwang Jin's amazing account at World Affairs). Labor exports are also now under scrutiny (See related posts here and here). It is not that defecting diplomats can topple the regime (unless they reflect some internal political processes we are not yet seeing). It is that defecting diplomats are reflective of the broader sanctions problem the regime faces, with the potential we have noted for an old-fashioned balance-of-payments crisis.
Moreover, it is at least possible—though unconfirmed—that those leaving the sinking ship may be carrying cash with them, with numbers as high as $50 million being bandied about. As Hankyoreh coverage above notes, there is some internal evidence for this possibility as KCNA not only claimed that Thae had raped a minor, but that he defected in advance of charges of embezzlement. $50 million may not seem like much money in the larger scheme of things, but recall that this is an economy that has a total trade—exports and imports—of only $6.25 billion. As we will detail later in the week in reviewing KOTRA’s new report on the country’s trade, the overall picture does not look good, with China’s trade—now over 90% of the total—off 18% in 2015.
North Korea must be laughing out loud at the dissension the THAAD deployment decision has wrought in South Korea. The drama went beyond NIMBY objections when six opposition lawmakers made the mistaken decision to air their internal dissent in China (Choe Sang-hun at the New York Times); the move by the young legislators played perfectly into North Korean and Chinese hands. Their diplomatic foray was followed by equally if not more outrageous claims by President Park of North Korean aims to create a “united front” in the South and even charges of treason by ruling-party legislators. What happened to the idea that democracy generates differences on issues of national import?
More recently, the National Assembly has been besieged of the issue, aggravated by divided government since the April elections (Reuters). Nonetheless, one important shift did emerge in the last few days: as I had also argued in several recent interviews in the Korean press (for example here at the Korea Times), THAAD should be made conditional, and it appears that President Park did make this shift in advance of her trip to Russia. The pressure was pretty unambiguous: the title of Georgy Toloraya’s blunt assessment at NKNews says it all: “Post-THAAD, don’t expect much N.Korea cooperation from Russia.”
But there was one more important South Korean development over the last two weeks, and it came in the revival of what might be called “unification speak.” In her liberation day speech, President Park made a number of welcome appeals to North Korea to address human rights issues. The North Korean Human Rights Foundation is scheduled to go operational this month.
But she also made some surprisingly open appeals to high-level defection, at least as we read the text:
“북한 당국의 간부들과 모든 북한 주민 여러분!
통일은 여러분 모두가 어떠한 차별과 불이익 없이 동등하게 대우받고 각자의 역량을 마음껏 펼치며 행복을 추구할 수 있는 새로운 기회를 제공할 것입니다.
핵과 전쟁의 공포가 사라지고, 인간의 존엄이 존중되는새로운 한반도 통일시대를 열어가는 데 동참해 주시기 바랍니다.”
“To North Korean authorities and all North Korean citizens:
Unification offers, without discrimination or any disadvantage and with equal treatment for all, a new opportunity to demonstrate the full extent of your abilities and to pursue happiness.
We hope that you will participate in the opening of a new Korean Peninsula under the era of unification where the horrors of nuclear weapons and war have disappeared and the dignity of mankind is respected.”
At a later National Security Council meeting, Park claimed that the defections revealed “serious cracks” in the regime and that North Korea would try to retaliate including through targeted assassinations.
Is language about human rights aspirations warranted? Absolutely. Are claims about the instability of the regime warranted? That is much less clear. But is it diplomatically useful to appeal to defectors and to argue more or less openly for regime change? I am somewhat more skeptical. Although I supported the Dresden speech for its honest statement of South Korea's aspirations, it is hardly the kind of language that is likely to generate meaningful engagement. But we may be way beyond any such hopes in any case; next time, a discussion of how regional politics have deteriorated, focusing on China and the surge of proposals floating around for remedying the mess.