North Korea: The Enduring Geopolitical Wild Card

4 MINS READJul 7, 2017 | 21:22 GMT

This week began with a bang: North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, inching closer to the U.S. red line of a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the American mainland. The week ended with the concerned parties trying to cobble together a way forward without taking military action. As each country advocated its own national interests, the divides only seem set to increase.

During the G-20, the United States, Japan and South Korea held their first trilateral summit on North Korea. This was a landmark for the preferred U.S. architecture in managing the conflict — a united front among U.S. allies in northeast Asia. The three powers resolved to cooperate in pushing for fresh U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang and voiced mutual support for the June 29 U.S. secondary sanctions on Chinese entities. The sides also emphasized that Russia in particular has a major role to play in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

But two legs of the alliance showed signs of wobbling: Japan and South Korea. This is because of both historical enmity and South Korean President Moon Jae In's preferred softer approach to North Korea. Moon met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the first time July 7. As expected, Abe called the 2015 deal on World War II-era "comfort women" a foundation for bilateral relations. (As part of the 2015 deal, Japan offered an apology and funding for a humanitarian foundation if South Korea agreed to refrain from further criticism in the United Nations.) Moon responded that the issue continues to block improvement in relations and reiterated his longtime stance that South Korea cannot "emotionally accept" the deal. This shows little progress since their conversation in May, although they did resolve to resume shuttle diplomacy on the matter.

The two were also on different pages regarding North Korea. The Japanese prime minister urged South Korea to exert the "maximum pressure" against North Korea and said now was not a time for dialogue. This came just one day after Moon publicly expressed a willingness to meet his North Korean counterpart, provided the right conditions are met. Moon also called for the resumption of family reunions, an end to hostile actions along their shared border and cooperation ahead of the 2018 Olympic games. Moon also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time and said Putin had a role to play in de-escalating the crisis on the Korean Peninsula — implying something slightly different than what the United States and Japan may have intended in the trilateral statement.

While the coalition shows no sign of breaking soon, any divides are worrying for the United States as it tries to push the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) to place steeper sanctions on North Korea. During the July 5 emergency UNSC meeting, the United States called for enhanced measures and promised to target countries dealing with North Korea. This was in clear reference to Russia and China, who have both been the target of unilateral U.S. sanctions over North Korea. Russia and China, for their part, maintained a united front on the matter: They emphasized that the United States should freeze military exercises with South Korea and remove the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed there. Russia also cast doubt on the identification of the July 4 North Korean device as a true intercontinental ballistic missile, saying their military assessments deemed it intermediate range. China has not officially commented on the nature of the device, but Chinese experts have voiced a similar opinion.

The United States directly warned Russia not to veto further sanctions on North Korea, and, if the runup to past sanctions give an indication, the coming weeks will see backroom talks between the United States and China seeking a resolution. This will be all the more difficult given that Washington insists it will not accept "watered down" sanctions — such as the relatively minimal June UNSC sanctions. Russia voted in favor of the June sanctions but vetoed an April statement condemning North Korean tests and reportedly blocked a July 6 statement as well, insisting that the term ICBM not be used. This is a sign of further acrimony to come. Russia may provide some cover for China, which does not want to pressure North Korea too much but which also must also be seen to be cooperating with the United States.

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