Rather than leveraging THAAD discord, North Korea chooses nukes

North Korea has shown no signs of tempering its ballistic missile testing, despite Seoul’s announcement earlier in July that it would deploy the U.S. missile defense system THAAD to South Korean soil. Days after the decision was announced, Pyongyang test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile [SLBM] and Scud and Rodong missiles. Earlier this month, it launched what is believed to be a Rodong missile, which flew some 1,000 km before dropping near Japanese waters. 

Judging from the sharp angles at which the SLBM and Rodong missiles were fired, the North seemingly wanted to highlight the limitations of the THAAD system by launching its missiles into high altitudes. But doing actually lends more credence to the rationale underpinning the missile defense system’s deployment in South Korea. China and Russia may vehemently oppose the deployment to the fullest degree, but this does not change the fact that missile provocations emanating from the North only bolster the case for THAAD. 

Missile tests in the face of THAAD deployment 

Why is it that Pyongyang chose to continually pursue missile tests at such a contentious time in the region, with South Korea and the U.S. decisively on one side, and China and Russia firmly on the other? Let us look at the two main ways this situation could have played out.

First, North Korea could have ceased provocations, seeking to strengthen ties with Russia and China at a time when the global push to isolate the North through sanctions began to falter. THAAD’s deployment is predicated on the need to deter North Korea’s missile threats, hence a cessation of provocations on Pyongyang’s part would erode the legitimacy of Seoul and Washington’s claims. 

Furthermore, if the North were to follow this chain of events by expressing a willingness to negotiate a peace deal on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing would secure a strong footing to criticize the South and the U.S. for deploying THAAD, arguing that those nations, in fact, are the actual provocateurs in inter-Korean relations. Warmer Sino-North Korean ties suggest relaxed sanctions, a climate Kim Jong Un could potentially leverage to organize a summit meeting with his counterpart in China.

North Korea’s second plausible course of action would be to use the widening gap between South Korea and the U.S., and China and Russia, to step up its nuclear and missile development. The fissure in global cooperation against the North reduces the likelihood of a strong response from the UN Security Council, even in the event of bold provocations from the North, inviting Pyongyang to accelerate its development of weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, based on the fact that past ballistic missiles tests draw, at worst, UN statements of condemnation, the North would not expect to face additional sanctions for its actions.

However, the second option means Pyongyang would face limitations in renewing and reinforcing relations with China and Russia. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, these countries would not be able to unconditionally throw their weight behind the North. While China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi may have hinted at improving ties with Pyongyang by extending a warm welcome to his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho at the ASEAN Regional Forum [ARF], it would be difficult for Beijing to fully restore relations and invite Kim Jong Un to China for talks in the face of his dogged pursuit of weapons development.

Nukes over restoring ties with China 

On balance, North Korea seems to have chosen the latter of these two options, opting to move forward with nuclear and missile development in lieu of curtailing provocations and thereby restoring ties with Beijing.

To put it simply, Pyongyang likely chose this path because it neither trusts China nor Russia. It is well aware that, even with this new opportunity to strengthen ties, Beijing will never support its nuclear ambitions. After all, China, Russia, South Korea, the U.S., and Japan all levied unilateral and multilateral sanctions against North Korea. In addition, the North has heard through multiple channels that Beijing finds the Kim Jong Un leadership, stuck in its dynastic totalitarian ways, a less than desirable ally.  

So, then, it appears that North Korea has decided that rather than forgo weapons development to curry favor with China, expanding and progressing its arsenal is better insurance for the regime’s long-term survival and sovereignty. Pyongyang sees its safety best achieved by boosting its strike capabilities against the U.S. to the greatest extent possible, particularly during times when international consensus has been undermined. (Enhancing attack capabilities against the U.S. will not necessarily guarantee its safety, but the North seemingly believes it will.)

This will continue so long as regional superpowers fail to reconcile their differences. A nuclear test would unite these powers and invite more sanctions, which may give Pyongyang pause in those pursuits, but the possibility of another test certainly cannot be ruled out. Until threats from the North escalate to a point where neighboring countries are forced to come together again, however fleetingly, expect to see Pyongyang walk the path of weapons development unimpeded. 
*Viewpoints expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.
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