Hong Kong (CNN)North Korea’s test of a long-range missile that could hit major US cities has drawn condemnation from the US, China, Japan and South Korea, and calls for a rethink in tactics toward Pyongyang, given the dramatic escalation in its capabilities.
US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley late Sunday dismissed claims Washington was seeking UN Security Council action, as it has done following previous tests, pointing out North Korea “is already subject to numerous Security Council resolutions that they violate with impunity.”
Friday’s test was deemed more advanced than the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched on July 4 and marks a big step forward from a country once deemed incapable of putting forward a serious ICBM program.
Sanctions and pressuring China have been the main avenues for attempting to contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in the past — with little success.
Despite this, both still have their proponents, with some analysts arguing sanctions have not been targeted correctly or wide enough, and others — including US administration officials — saying sanctions should go after Chinese interests as a means of forcing Beijing’s hand on North Korea.
Speaking last week, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s East Asia bureau, said “the Chinese are now very clear that we’re going to go after Chinese entities if need be.”
While China is North Korea’s primary trading partner, and trade between the countries may be increasing even as Beijing cuts coal and other exports, analysts have questioned whether economic pressure could ever rein in Pyongyang’s military ambitions given the primacy the regime places on the nuclear program in terms of ensuring its survival.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have placed great weight on Beijing acting to contain its neighbor and longtime ally, but some analysts warn assumptions about China’s influence on the North Korean regime may be out of date.
“Beijing’s channels to Pyongyang are frayed, they’re weak,” said John Delury, an expert on Chinese-Korean relations at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“President Trump’s tweets reflect this inherited Obama view that the road to Pyongyang leads through Beijing — that’s a dead end.”
If sanctions have proven ineffective and China doesn’t have as much influence as Washington makes out, that leaves two previously unpalatable options on the table — military action, or negotiating directly with North Korea.
While some in the US administration, including CIA chief Mike Pompeo, have signaled support for regime change in Pyongyang, the risks of that devolving into civil war and chaos are great, and State Department officials have said the option is not on the table.
The risks of a military strike or all out conflict with North Korea are even greater, with US Defense Secretary James Mattis warning last month it could result in tragedy “on an unbelievable scale.”
“The time to launch a preventative war is before they have a nuclear armed ICBM,” said arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis on his podcast last week.
Tension and tourism along the DMZ line
That leaves diplomacy. Since the six party talks — involving North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US — ended in failure more than a decade ago, multiple US administrations have refused to return to the negotiating table with Pyongyang unless the regime agrees to give up its nuclear program.
That approach is looking increasingly absurd, Lewis pointed out. “We’ve consistently had this idea that the North Koreans are a joke and we don’t have to give them anything,” he said. “People were wrong about that, the North Koreans didn’t get strong armed (at the six party talks), they built nuclear weapons, and now they’ve built an ICBM.”
“As much as I would like North Korea to freeze and end its nuclear program, no combination of threats, engagement, negotiations, and sanctions, has produced that outcome,” he wrote.
Instead, Wolfsthal said the US should move towards a policy of deterring Pyongyang from ever using its weapons: “The Trump administration must communicate directly with its North Korean counterparts to ensure they have a clear understanding of what actions would provoke a direct US response.”
Speaking Sunday, senior Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein urged the Trump administration “to begin some very serious negotiation with the North and stop this program.”
Delury said the US “needs to open up high level channels directly with with Pyongyang, as direct to Kim Jong Un as possible, and work it from there.”
Doing so may prove as difficult as other approaches however. South Korea invited North Korea to begin joint military talks this month — they never got an answer.
Moon Sang-gyun, spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense said Monday that invitation remained: “The military’s stance of strongly responding to North Korea’s provocations hasn’t changed a single bit. But I’d like to say that doors are always open for dialogue.”
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