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Getting Serious About North Korea

Gen. Joseph Dunford and Gen. Lee Sun-jin stand side-by-side in uniform
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Lee Sun-jin, in 2016.
Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro, courtesy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Flickr.

Possibly the most useful and substantive interaction between outgoing President Barack Obama and incoming President Donald Trump was Obama’s much-publicized advice that North Korea would be Trump’s most pressing foreign policy problem.

Kim Jong Un’s regime seems determined to waste no time in proving him right.

Japan’s military was at its highest alert stage early this week after North Korea fired a volley of four missiles, three of which fell into waters that, while not technically Japanese territory, were within the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.

North Korea has conducted missile tests for decades and announced possession of nuclear weapons in 2005. In 2016 alone, the country conducted more than two dozen missile test-fires. The type of missiles fired in Japan’s direction is not yet clear, though U.S. officials and other experts have said they did not appear to be intercontinental ballistic missiles, often called ICBMs.

Even so, the timing of this launch was particularly pointed. North Korea had threatened to take “strong retaliatory measures” only a few days prior after South Korea and the United States began annual joint military drills and amid controversy over plans for a missile-defense system to be installed in South Korea. The missiles aimed at Japan may have landed in the ocean, but the message is clear. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament that the launch was “an extremely dangerous action.” North Korean state media later reported that the tests were specifically designed to practice striking American military bases in Japan.

Meanwhile, North Korea has escalated its dispute with Malaysia by effectively holding Malaysian citizens within its borders hostage. Pyongyang announced that it will not allow Malaysian nationals, including a pair of United Nations employees, to leave the country until Malaysia guarantees the safety of North Koreans within its borders, in a clear effort to force Kuala Lumpur to abandon the investigation into the murder of Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother. Malaysian law enforcement believes several North Koreans wanted for questioning in the matter are currently sequestered in the North Korean embassy. While Malaysia has had unusually close ties to North Korea, Prime Minister Najib Razak has called the North’s action an “abhorrent act” which was “in total disregard of all international law and diplomatic norms.” In other words, business as usual in Pyongyang.

Yet Obama’s advice, while sound, only addressed part of the issue. You can’t thoughtfully respond to North Korea’s bellicosity without also addressing that country’s chief international backer: China.

While the Chinese are clearly frustrated with Pyongyang’s aggressiveness, that frustration has not translated into substantive change in Beijing’s policy. To the contrary, Beijing is orchestrating an economic boycott of South Korea in response to Seoul’s planned deployment of anti-missile defenses to shield its population from the obvious threat to the north.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, usually abbreviated Thaad, is a U.S. missile defense system designed to enable South Korea to defend itself from a North Korean attack. The planned deployment was announced last year, but over time, Chinese pressure on South Korea to abandon the system has grown more pronounced. Beijing has urged Chinese travel agencies to drop South Korean tour packages, and certain Chinese retailers have said they will not carry Korean goods. Lotte Group, a South Korean conglomerate that approved a land swap allowing the Thaad deployment to move forward, has faced legal trouble with inspections and permits in China and its website was recently hit with a massive denial-of-service attack.

The issue is not that China necessarily wants South Koreans to be vulnerable to Kim Jong Un. It is that the Chinese believe a larger principle to be at stake. Like Russia, but with less justification, China believes that its own international influence stems in significant part from its arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles, including ICBMs that can reach the United States. Never mind that Thaad missiles pose no offensive threat, nor could they knock down ICBMs launched at the United States. China insists Thaad would “severely disrupt regional strategic balance” all the same. Meaning, we can suppose, that China reserves the right to nuke Seoul and Tokyo.

Both China and Russia fear being surrounded and isolated; that fear is amplified when they believe their ability to use missiles to break out of that containment is threatened. Regardless of the actual capabilities of missile defenses that might be installed in East Asia to protect South Korea and Japan from North Korea, or of those that might be placed in Eastern Europe to protect that region from threats emanating from the Middle East, China and Russia are determined to prevent a missile system of any kind in those places. Failing to prevent such a system, they will exact a costly retribution, as China is demonstrating with South Korea.

It is a knotty problem because these undemocratic regimes see their military power as a key to their own survival. Unless other countries attach the same importance to missile defense, Russia and China will remain on the offensive.

It may now be time for the United States and its allies to confront reality. Our concerns about North Korea are more realistic – and dire – than Chinese or Russian concerns about us. If the Chinese impose costs on our allies for protecting themselves, we should ensure the Chinese pay at least an equal price. Want to block Korean goods and package-tour sales in China? We can do the same for Chinese goods and travel sold in the good old U.S.A.

Sure, it will be costly, but maybe it will encourage the Chinese to focus on the real threats to regional and global peace. I would hate to see a U.S.-China trade war, but even that is better than a North Korean mushroom cloud over Pusan or Osaka – or Seattle.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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