One step closer to the brink – how US diplomacy failed in North Korea

A policy of isolation and containment has left the North Korean regime convinced that its nuclear deterrent is the only way to guarantee survival. 

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At around 7am on Friday, loudspeakers in the town of Kaimaishi, northern Japan blared into action, warning of an inbound North Korean missile. The missile passed over Japan and splashed down in the Pacific approximately 2,000 kilometres east of Hokkaido. This is only the fourth time North Korea has directed a missile over Japan. The first was in 1998 and the second 2009. The last two times have only been a matter of weeks apart.

North Korea’s latest missile test comes in response to a new round of sanctions imposed on the country after it conducted its sixth nuclear test on 3 September 2017. Heralded by the US as the toughest yet, the measures include an embargo on North Korean textile exports, a bar on North Korean workers overseas obtaining new work permits and reducing oil imports by 30 per cent. Whilst the resolution was passed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the support of Russia and China was only won after the original proposal from the US was diluted heavily.

This latest response, as well as the detonation of a high-yield nuclear device following the first round sanctions in August, have not swayed the US conviction that imposing ever tougher sanctions on North Korea will force the regime to abandon its nuclear programme. Already there are calls for fresh sanctions. The United States (US) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is pressing for Russia and China to take "direct action of their own" ahead of the emergency UNSC meeting later today.

However, both Russia and China have expressed scepticism over US policy preferences on North Korea. Prior to the last UNSC meeting, at a Brics summit in China, Russian president Vladimir Putin remarked: “The sanctions regime has run its course…they will rather eat grass in North Korea than abandon this programme.” Putin was also reluctant to support the US demands for an oil embargo, arguing that Russian oil exports to North Korea are negligible.

Signalling a shift in attitude, China has been more open to pursuing sanctions against the North Korean regime. Crucially though, Beijing has stressed the need to accompany this with moves to resume negotiations and attempts to de-escalate the crisis. A key step towards this goal, Beijing argues, is for the US to cease its joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for North Korea agreeing not to carry out further missile tests.

Even among the US and its allies, there is a marked difference in their respective policy objectives. The Republic of Korea’s (ROK) new president, Moon Jae-In, was elected following a campaign which promised a softer stance towards the country’s northern neighbour, with the aim of promoting dialogue and resume negotiations. Given that South Korea would bear the brunt of any conflict with North Korea, its government is keen to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The US, on the other hand, has displayed a far more aggressive stance towards North Korea. In stark contrast to the calm and considered policy of de-escalation usually favoured by previous US presidents, Donald Trump has promised "fire and fury" if North Korea does not cease its threats against the United States. Trump caused controversy for describing Moon Jae-In's approach to North Korea as a policy of "appeasement". Alluding to the use of force, Trump claims that, “they only understand one thing!” and has repeatedly stated a military option is still available.

Japan is also becoming less tolerant of the threat North Korea poses to its national security. This morning the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said that North Korea’s provocative acts "threaten world peace" and called for the international community to unite against the recalcitrant regime. Abe’s support for the remilitarisation of Japan is, in part, due to the need to counter North Korean aggression. The Japanese Defence Ministry’s plans to acquire the land-based Aegis Ashore missile-defence system is also a reflection of the new types of threat the country faces.

The fact North Korea has carried out a sixth nuclear test demonstrates a significant failure in policy on all sides. Central to this failure, is a complete lack of understanding of Pyongyang’s motives. The US, as well as the wider international community, have relished the opportunity to portray North Korea as a pariah state headed by an irrational dictator with bellicose tendencies. By doing so, the US is able to justify its policy of isolation and containment. This places the onus on North Korea to resume negotiations, whilst also retaining the option for US military action.

But despite Washington's attempt to depict North Korea as the sole aggressor, Pyongyang views its position in the crisis as defensive. Both North and South Korea have declared reunification to be their ultimate goal. However faced by the overwhelming military strength of the US-ROK alliance, Pyongyang's short-term priority is regime survival.

Seen from Pyongyang, brinkmanship-based diplomacy is necessary to compensate for the imbalance of power. Should North Korea seek to initiate negotiations, it would be at an immediate disadvantage. This is particularly true as Washington insists on North Korean nuclear disarmament as a precondition for negotiations, which the regime considers its strongest bargaining chip.

For this reason, the North Korean regime employs hyperbolic rhetoric and limited acts of aggression, such as missile tests, to increase tensions. In doing so, the regime hopes to achieve a two-fold effect. Firstly, to deter the US from pursuing a pre-emptive attack. Secondly, to raise the threat level to a point where the US is forced to abandon its precondition of nuclear disarmament and initiate negotiations on terms more favourable for North Korea.

Crucially, if neither side can commit to the other’s preconditions, nor can see any chance of gaining significant concessions, the logic of brinkmanship falls apart. Pyongyang is caught in a Catch-22 situation. It believes attaining a credible nuclear deterrence to be the strongest protection against regime change and a means to be treated as an equal on the international stage. However, the US refuses to negotiate with North Korea unless it is prepared to discuss nuclear disarmament. Similarly, Washington will not tolerate North Korea obtaining the ability to strike the US homeland, but Pyongyang cannot provide a credible deterrent without this capability.

In these terms, the closer North Korea comes to developing missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, the more the situation becomes a zero-sum game for both countries. North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear programme as it approaches its goal. The US does not want to risk losing the opportunity of a pre-emptive attack. Here, negotiation is in neither party’s interest. The real currency of diplomacy becomes military might, where the emphasis is placed on acting first.

Worryingly, we are already at this point. North Korea has declared it possesses nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting the US’s West Coast. Although this claim was met with scepticism by North Korean analysts, most agree this reality is now likely less than a year away. In North Korea’s sixth nuclear weapons test, a suspected 100 kiloton bomb was detonated, which is the largest yet. Doubt remains as to whether this was a genuine hydrogen bomb, or simply an atom bomb boosted by a secondary explosion. What is clear is that North Korea's nuclear weapons technology is advancing much faster than previously predicted.

Trump’s “they only understand one thing!” comment reflects growing frustration and impatience in the US with the ongoing North Korea crisis. Prior to commencing his presidency, Trump was warned by Barack Obama that North Korea represents the greatest threat to US security. Trump is eager not repeat the same mistakes as Obama, having chastised him for his policy on North Korea during the US election run. Other members of the Trump’s government, such as James Mattis, are still unwilling to rule out diplomacy. However, a recent poll shows that, for the first time, a majority of Americans support military action if South Korea is attacked.

Barack Obama came to office promising a tougher stance on North Korea than the previous Bush administration. In particular, Obama aimed to break a cycle in which North Korean provocations lead to concessions, as means to secure agreements, which later collapse, causing the cycle to begin anew. Although Obama had criticised the Bush administration’s policy of containment and isolation, he failed to deliver on his promise of sincere and lasting engagement with Pyongyang. In actual fact, he was criticised for sitting on the fence. He did not bring North Korea back to the Six-Party Talks, but nor did he adopt a more aggressive policy line against the rogue state. This had the effect of further isolating the North Korean regime and disconnecting Pyongyang's own policy of brinkmanship with the necessary channels to pursue de-escalation.

Trump has not only returned to the Bush administration’s policy of containment and isolation, but has also adopted a far more hawkish approach to North Korea. In addition to his "fire and fury" comments, this has included a sharp rise in the number of joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan, in addition to the three US aircraft carriers now anchored in Korean waters.

With each successive breakdown in negotiations, the likelihood of further talks diminishes as the crisis cap is raised higher and higher. This creates a situation in which North Korea is required to make ever greater threats and pursue even bolder acts of aggression in a bid to force the US to negotiate on more favourable terms. As a result, the crisis edges closer to war with each new incident. 

The failure of US diplomacy is in large part to blame for North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and continuing missile tests. A policy of isolation and containment has left the North Korean regime convinced that its nuclear deterrent is the only way to guarantee survival.

The international response to this latest missile test will be crucial in avoiding hostilities. Imposing further sanctions without any engagement will only put North Korea in a situation where it has nothing to lose from a surprise attempt at reunification. It is highly unlikely that North Korea will shut down its nuclear weapons programme. Therefore the US will need to come to terms with this, in the same way it did with India and Pakistan. In fact, North Korea attaining a credible nuclear deterrence will curtail the need for brinkmanship-based diplomacy and may make the US more amenable to negotiations.The irony of this would surely be lost on the Trump administration.

Jack Broome is a political analyst specialising in East Asian and South East Asian regional politics, with experience working in the political risk and corporate intelligence sectors in China and Taiwan. Jack obtained his Bachelor's degree in Politics from SOAS, University of London, and is currently studying a Master's degree in Conflict Studies at LSE, University of London.