North Korea's increased belligerence has alarmed the U.S. and its allies, and heightened tensions in the Asian-Pacific region. As usual though, the hand-wringing in Washington, Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul isn't accompanied by any new ideas on what to do to solve the perennial problem of Pyongyang and its illicit nuclear weapons program.
Most problematic, perhaps, is that nothing has altered the strategic calculus of China — the most influential player with respect to North Korea, and the one without which it is hard to see a resolution.
North Korea was high on the agenda during my recent visit to Northeast Asia, but the reaction in Beijing to Pyongyang's bluster and threats was markedly different than in Tokyo or Seoul. Officials I met with in Japan and South Korea, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Gyun-hye, voiced similar concerns over North Korea's growing capabilities and the potential consequences of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.
In contrast, my Chinese interlocutors seemed rather nonplused by our allies' reaction to the prospect of an enduring "nuclear-armed" North Korea. China views North Korea as a nuisance — a distraction from the domestic challenges that Beijing must confront as it continues its remarkable economic growth and development.
Chinese officials are urging all parties to remain calm and avoid actions that could escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Yet one I met with went so far as to suggest that the U.S. routinely overstates the North Korean threat. This particular Chinese official's advice on dealing with North Korea: The U.S. should "just relax." That precise sentiment may not be shared by all Chinese officials, but it is emblematic of Beijing's overall laissez-faire approach to North Korea.
Telling the U.S. to relax is relatively easy for Beijing to do, as Pyongyang is a nominal "ally." Washington, Tokyo and Seoul don't have that luxury in the face of Pyongyang's continued threats, the possibility of pre-emptive nuclear strikes, and the North's maturing nuclear and missile capabilities. Indeed, most analysts believe that North Korea is pursuing the ability to mount a miniaturized nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile that could reach the continental U.S. As reports in recent days have noted, at least one U.S. intelligence agency has "moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles."
The recent flight of two nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over South Korea was a welcome demonstration of U.S. security commitments to our allies in Tokyo and Seoul. But U.S. assurances may no longer be enough to maintain stability in the region. A number of Japanese and South Korean officials I met on my trip expressed genuine concerns over our ability to keep our security commitments to them given our worsening fiscal situation.
While the administration has repeatedly reaffirmed U.S. extended deterrence commitments to Japan and South Korea, there are growing voices in the region advocating greater national defense self-sufficiency and additional military capabilities. The Obama administration's recent decision to delay a long-scheduled Minuteman 3 missile test in order to avoid actions that might "exacerbate the current crisis with North Korea," according to a senior U.S. defense official, likely did nothing to assuage those regional allies.
Undoubtedly, these potential posture shifts are indicative of growing insecurity in Tokyo and Seoul. Tokyo is considering revising the way it interprets its constitution to enable the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to operate as a "normal" military. There is growing public sentiment in South Korea for developing its own nuclear deterrent — and if Seoul pursues such an approach, Tokyo likely won't be far behind. Japan already possesses the relevant technology, and South Korea is now seeking to develop additional civilian nuclear capabilities.
With the prospect of a nuclearized region, Beijing's relatively blasé attitude toward Pyongyang is all the more problematic. This attitude is seemingly driven by Chinese national interests, including a desire to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula and prevent a flood of refugees into China. Yet Beijing's reluctance to use its economic leverage and influence over Pyongyang could present a greater near-term challenge to its security than any perceived threat of refugees spilling across its border.
In recent weeks, former senior Obama administration officials have suggested that China is slowly shifting its stance on North Korea, pointing to Beijing's support for additional United Nations sanctions. Yet, there is no tangible evidence that China has undertaken measures to attempt to modify North Korea's behavior. Food and fuel continue to flow across the Chinese border into North Korea. Chinese financial institutions reportedly continue to process North Korean transactions.
During Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Beijing, Chinese officials merely reiterated the same tepid talking points urging "dialogue and consultation." According to Chinese state television, Premier Li Keqiang advised the U.S. to avoid actions that could provoke the North. "There's no need to pick up a stone and hurt your own foot," he reportedly told Mr. Kerry.
That attitude is unacceptable. China must understand that so long as North Korea remains a threat, the U.S. will pursue a deeper and more visible military presence in the region, and Washington will continue to showcase its military muscle in China's backyard. Moreover, Tokyo and Seoul will explore measures to strengthen their own defensive and offensive capabilities. The potential for a nuclear arms race in East Asia is real and not merely a theoretical exercise.
As successive administrations — Republican and Democrat — have discovered through trial and error, there is no easy solution on North Korea. However, if the policy objective remains the denuclearization of the North, then the U.S. must get serious with China and develop a tailored strategy to persuade Beijing that the costs of its continued support for Pyongyang far outweigh any perceived benefits. For starters, the U.S. should make clear that any financial institution that continues to handle tainted North Korean funds runs a reputational risk and potential blacklisting, particularly those seeking to gain a foothold in the global financial system.
The time is past due for Washington and Beijing to engage in an honest and frank dialogue on the future of the Korean peninsula. The status quo is no longer an option.