For several months now, it appears that North Korea and the threat its authoritarian government poses to the U.S. and its partners have been ignored for several reasons, one of which is due to the fact that the U.S. is currently involved in two other issues that have filled most of the front page space in newspapers these days.
The emergence of ISIS and the inability to cope with the devastation and havoc it has wreaked across Syria and Iraq, the ensuing involvement of Russia in Syria, China’s aspirations to become the conqueror of the South China Sea, a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and internal issues mean that the U.S. inadvertently diverted its gaze away from Pyongyang, which has given Kim Jong-Un and company great motivation to pursue the Kim Dynasty’s agenda.
North Korea no more on top of the to-do list
It was indeed surprising to note that at this year’s UN General Assembly, North Korea and its erratic behavior were not discussed with the same passion as in previous years. Indeed, it was only South Korea that spoke at great length about Pyongyang’s threat to the region.
According to South Korean intelligence officials, North Korea is currently preparing for yet another nuclear test. If these findings prove to be true, it would mark the regime’s third nuclear detonation since 2007 when it agreed to end its controversial nuclear program during the Six-Party Talks. As a result of those talks, the U.S. had removed Pyongyang from its list of states that sponsor terrorism.
It is quite clear that North Korea was least bothered by the talks and had been relentlessly pursuing an agenda which today threatens to destabilize a region that is critical to the United States’ foreign policy goals. And while North Korea continues to play like that, the U.S. has simply sat back and observed things from a safe distance.
Even though issues such as those in the Middle East and the South China Sea are not to be ignored, the North Korean threat is an equally grave concern, which means that it is time for Washington to reevaluate its position on North Korea and not give it any margin whatsoever. Between 1988 and 2008, the U.S. had listed North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism. One of the major reasons behind this was the country’s involvement in the 1987 in-flight bombing of Korea Air Flight 858, which killed everyone on board. Throughout the next years, the U.S. always seemed to justify North Korea’s presence in the list based on its hostile activities.
All those activities which saw North Korea become part of that list are still taking place today. It was really surprising when North Korea’s name was wiped off the list, and no one ever considered putting it back on the list, despite the fact that Pyongyang conducted two nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013.
In the last decade or so, Pyongyang has been linked with supplying arms to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. In 2009, three North Korean arms shipments were seized by the UAE. In all these cases, the arms were reported to be bound for terrorist groups. In July 2014, it was claimed that Hamas had brokered an agreement with Pyongyang to purchase communications equipment and artillery rockets. Furthermore, North Korea has been providing “consultation” to terrorist groups, which shows that despite being forced to live in isolation, North Korea is covertly contributing to the international terrorist community.
North Korea – an unpredictable adversary
Setting aside its nuclear capabilities, North Korea is also flexing its muscles in the cyber arena. In 2009, Pyongyang set up a cyber-warfare unit to target military servers in the U.S. and South Korea. Over the course of time, the websites of the departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission have been targeted by Korean hackers. Only last year, North Korea was the architect of an aggressive cyber-attack against Sony Pictures around the release of The Interview, a movie which was based on two bumbling reporters hired by the CIA to take out Kim Jong-Un.
In the last 20 years, North Korea has not gone soft. Desperate to make his late father proud, Kim Jong-un is proving to be a far more dangerous adversary than his father ever was. At a very young age, Kim has revolutionized North Korean military aspirations, and his relentless push for power is something that is definitely going to create serious problems in the future.
With all that being said, it is clear that the U.S. should not ignore the threat North Korea poses. However, taking extreme measures will never be the right approach, as has been proven in the last two decades. North Korea is a unique and unpredictable state — one that will only gain more strength and motivation, the more it is pushed into isolation.
Following Beijing’s lead
This time around, the U.S. should approach and tackle the North Korea problem in a different way and take a page out of China’s book in terms of its dealings with Pyongyang. For instance, China has chosen a soft power strategy towards North Korea. Beijing is aware that it stands to gain a lot if it is able to form an amicable relationship with North Korea.
On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Workers Party, Beijing sent the country’s fifth most powerful man, Liu Yunshan (member of the Politburo Standing Committee), to observe the proceedings. Liu is now the highest official from Beijing to have visited North Korea during the Kim dynasty, which shows that China intends to clear the air with North Korea and wants to ensure that its leader’s thirst for power and panache for the extravagant is kept in check for the sake of stability in the region.
North Korea holds great importance to China in terms of its strategic location, trade potential, economic capacity and more. And although China has continued to call for the denuclearization of North Korea on several instances, it has done so in a very measured manner – by keeping its relations intact rather than adopting the approach the U.S. has over the past few years.