'The Calm Before the Storm:' The Isolation and Provocation of North Korea

The global outlook of the PRC and shifting policies in Washington do not bode well for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

DMZ seen from the north.

DMZ seen from the north.

Over the past few months, there has been mounting concern over the provocation of North Korea and its missile tests. As most observers agree, the future of North Korea, and any action on the part of the US or South Korea, can not be meaningfully discussed outside the larger context of China's (fleeting?) support of North Korea and the strategy to contain China militarily on the part of the US.

As per usual, many news outlets would claim that North Korea is a wild card and controlled by unpredictable leadership, on edge, and eager to lash out. Then the common intelligent refrain of “No, they are acting acting quite rationally, and have been doing so for some time” would be heard from observers with a more informed view on the situation.

These fearful accusations, insinuations and the response, have been heard many, many times over the years, with surprising regularity. This year however, the hum of discourse over North Korea and saber-rattling between leaders has continued a bit longer than the yearly news cycle is accustomed to, and there are several indications that the political landscape may be shifting into more dangerous territory than previous years.

The term "North Korea" on Google Trends over past 5 years.

This is in part due to Washington's shift to a more hard-line stance on security in East Asia, but there is also an element of Chinese acquiescence towards US policy that can not be overlooked. The potential conflict with North Korea has always been viewed with the fear of igniting wider conflict with China itself. However unlike previous generations of Chinese leadership, the current Chinese state has been much more vocal in condemning the North's missile programs than they have been in the past.

It may be that the Kim regime is losing its most valuable ally. Hence the impetus to develop a capable nuclear deterrent is more pressing than it has ever been before. In short, North Korea's time to stabilize the international situation in its favor appears to be running out. Although their missile payload and launch capability also appear to be making adequate and timely gains in step with their haste to achieve their ballistic goals.

As far as the international community is concerned, Kim Jong-Un had the opportunity to change the course of his country's future when he succeeded his father Kim Jong-Il. In the first year of his leadership, there appeared to be intimations towards economic liberalization and there were certainly hopes that the US under Obama would seek a more amiable relationship.

However, neither of these things ever materialized. And given the continuation of the missile program, and the regular goading of conflict with the South, (most likely for propaganda purposes in the North), that opportunity to change course has been squandered. The North now finds itself climbing inexorably towards a dangerous precipice, where military conflict may be inescapable.

Kim Jong-Un

In the past, with the ideological and economic support of China, the North could act with relative assurance in their harassment and extortion of the South, along with their bold and hyperbolic threats of violence towards the United States. Now, the situation has changed, and the North Korean state is more isolated than it has ever been. Where accusations of recklessness may have been hollow on many occasions in the past, they may not be so far off the mark anymore. The pressures the Kim regime are facing may be driving the state to a point of desperation.

As far as Washington is concerned, North Korea has always played the role of scapegoat for continued military presence in East Asia. The secondary benefit of having such a military threat in the region provides US forces preemptive capabilities should conflict with China ever become an actuality. Somewhat quizzically, North Korea has also given the Chinese state a measure of diplomatic leverage and political clout on the global stage, providing the emerging power with a key role as an international mediator in the post-Mao era.

However, with ties between South Korea and China warming, keeping a failing state on life support does not appear to be one of China's top priorities. There are other regions, both international and domestic, whose maintenance is far more crucial to the continued global rise of China. Their concerns towards the North are related more to matters of demographics and territorial integrity.

Specifically, they do not want to be responsible for a deluge of Korean refugees that may destabilize the Manchurian region, which already possesses a sizable population of the Joseon (Korean) ethnic group. Further, they do not want American troops stationed directly on a land border so close to the heart of Chinese territory.

It is not only possible, but very likely, that Beijing and Washington have been negotiating such issues, in the event that the US should deem military action unavoidable on the peninsula. The reported increase of Chinese troops stationed on the Yalu River since the Spring of 2017, may allude to Beijing's contingency plans on the matter.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China President Xi Jinping.

The North now finds itself in a position where their weapons development programs are the only lifeline the regime can envision for itself. Complicating matters further, the state now lacks the unequivocal support of China, and the US is no longer willing to maintain a conciliatory posture. Indeed, the Project for a New American Century has much larger regional ambitions, and the usefulness of the North as a regional scapegoat may be coming to an end.

In the Trump-era, with the international community growing increasingly skeptical of American leadership, and with allies like Japan expecting military assurances from the US to honor bilateral defense agreements, a show of force and a big budget expenditure may be precisely what the war-hawks and the weapons industry in the US desire.

Unfortunately for the people of North Korea, it appears that the leaders of their state have become detached from the modern global stage, ignorant of the shifting priorities of their greatest patron, as well as their own role as geopolitical pawn among the think-tanks of DC. Unless Kim Jong-Un can manage the most graceful about-face a modern leader has ever performed, the likelihood of avoiding military conflict with the Trump administration grows more fleeting every day.

In light of recent comments from Trump himself, one may be forgiven for taking the pessimistic view that Washington has already made a decision on the matter. They may just be waiting for their causus belli, and the North's predictable program of missile tests will unwittingly provide one on a time-line chosen by US generals themselves.

There are two events planned this week that will likely set a new tone for the peninsula. First, joint war-games between South Korea and the US led by aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, in response to which the North has threatened a further missile test. And second, the 19th Annual Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, where positions on North Korea, as well as Taiwan are certain to be discussed.