The Korean Peninsula has known neither war nor peace since a conflict there in 1950-53 ended with an unstable truce. In March, however, the mood changed. North Korea snk a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. It was the largest military attack by the North since the end of the Korean War.
On Monday, President Obama gave his strongest response yet. He slapped tough economic sanctions on key players and institutions in Pyongyang, aimed at ending the country’s nuclear-weapons program and its export of nuclear material to other countries.
It was an unusually strong response from a US president who prefers talking over exerting pressure, and who wants the United States to focus on rebuilding its economy. But Mr. Obama was forced to act.
North Korea is not only more threatening to the region and the world with its new nuclear weapons and missiles, but its chief ally and economic supporter, China, did not even condemn the naval attack or admit that the North did it – despite clear evidence.
Obama’s new sanctions were likely aimed at Beijing as much as at the regime of Kim Jong-il. They may be part of a larger Obama strategy to stand up to China as it tries to dominate Asia with its expanding economic and naval might. The Korean Peninsula, as it was during the cold war, could once again become a proxy battleground for a larger struggle between China and the US.
These are volatile days in North Korea. Mr. Kim appears ill, and eager to have his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, accepted as his successor at next month’s meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party. The country is in dire economic straits after recent flooding and after many people lost their savings last year as a result of a disastrous currency renomination.
China, meanwhile, wants a stable North Korea rather than a unified Korea that might allow US troops to be stationed along the Chinese border. Beijing is now trying to de-escalate the current tensions by pushing Kim to resume talks with the US (along with Japan, South Korea, and Russia). But the US won’t resume talks until North Korea agrees to end its nuclear program.
Obama’s sanctions up the ante about resuming talks. They are aimed at denying Kim and the elite around him access to banks and businesses – many of them in China – which provide the hard currency that helps keep the regime in power and pays for its nuclear program. They are a way to finally force Kim to relent and get rid of those weapons.
Obama’s move runs the risk that the North may lash out, precipitating further violence. Still, the evidence of Kim’s nuclear exports to countries such as a Syria is clear. And the naval attack in March, combined with China’s unwillingness to punish North Korea, leaves Obama with little choice but to push hard on Kim and his associates.
If Obama succeeds, he will also improve his ability to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
The sanctions are targeted at organizations in the North that bring in luxury goods for the elite and at top individuals who develop and sell weapons of mass destruction. The US also plans to punish foreign firms that do business with these individuals or organizations. And the American Navy plans to beef up its interdiction of North Korean ships suspected of carrying dangerous weapons.
Will this new US pressure force Kim to relent? And will the sanctions send a signal to China that it must rein in its dangerous ally?
Obama is playing a game of chicken in Asia right now. The sanctions seem well crafted at North Korea’s elite.
Within days, the world may find out if his risky move will pay off.