The Asia-Pacific region is an increasingly important driver of global growth, and sits in an increasingly delicate strategic equilibrium. One country poses an imminent danger to the region’s stability and therefore its prosperity: North Korea. The regime in Pyongyang is persistent in pursuit of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deploy them over long distances. The stand-off is terribly dangerous already, and will grow worse. Stronger international engagement is needed — now.
Experts believe that North Korea possesses more than 20 nuclear bombs. It has deployed ballistic missiles with ranges that extend to Japan, and has been performing tests with the aim of developing missiles that can reach the west coast of the US. It is a matter of time before it can make nuclear bombs compact enough for such missiles to carry: five years is the consensus estimate. The US and its allies could not and should not tolerate this. The threat is not limited to the Pacific. In 2008, US government officials alleged that Pyongyang had attempted to help Syria develop a nuclear facility.
The international community needs to bring North Korea back to the table for multilateral talks, with the end of the missile programme as the proximate goal. There are three keys for success. First, an unambiguous warning to Pyongyang that the world will never, under any conditions, acknowledge it as a legitimate or permanent nuclear power. Second, backing these warnings with heavier sanctions. Finally, the US, South Korea and Japan must accelerate their co-operation on a missile defence network in the region.
On sanctions, the crucial issue is support from China. In November the UN Security Council, in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test, passed multilateral sanctions targeting the coal trade. Coal is one of the country’s key sources of hard currency, but this will not be enough. In negotiations with China, the US reportedly called for tougher measures, such as an oil embargo. China would not agree. It has good reason: if the regime were to collapse, it faces the prospect of refugees flooding over its border or even sharing a border with a unified Korea that is a US ally and host to US troops.
Yet China accounts for 90 per cent of North Korea’s international trade. Without some degree of Chinese co-operation, UN sanctions cannot tighten meaningfully. A middle way, in which China notches up the pressure without posing an existential threat to the Pyongyang regime, must be found.
If the US, Japan and South Korea, accelerate missile defence co-operation, they could increase their own safety while giving China reason to adjust its stance. The three countries have already moved in this direction. The trio also conducted its first joint missile defence exercise in Hawaii in June. In July, Washington and Seoul agreed to deploy a new American missile defence system in South Korea. In November, Japan and South Korea signed an intelligence pact.
China opposes high-altitude defence deployment in South Korea. It appears to worry that it will weaken its own missile capability. This opens the way for a quid pro quo: help with sanctions in return for missile defence concessions.
Progress will be made infinitely more difficult if China-US relations degrade. President-elect Donald Trump appears intent on shaking up the relationship, using Taiwan as a bargaining chip. If pursued, this will become a game for the highest possible stakes. One must hope that the Mr Trump has thought through his strategy. At the very least, it puts progress on North Korea in doubt.