Once again, we are presented with another successful North Korean weapons development event in the early hours of last Wednesday. This event showed yet another increase in North Korean missile capability. Some took comfort over the apparent failure of a reentry vehicle, but the demonstrated range capability brings the rest of the planet within range. Given North Korea’s continued advancements in nuclear weapons capabilities, there is little reason to doubt North Korean will, skill and means.
Global reactions include the usual mix of calls for dialogue and negotiated agreements, economic cooperation, UN censure, imposition of sanctions and threats of potential military action. Again. This is the same set of reactions that greeted the exposure of the North Korean nuclear development program in 1993. It is the same general set of reactions used in every subsequent incident since that time.
How is an impoverished state with an autarkic economy, unreliable or nonexistent energy grids beyond the capital, a woeful national GDP, food-production struggles including widespread malnutrition and famine, and unparalleled human rights abuses able to defy all national and international efforts to become, as some now allege, an “existential threat” to the United States? It must be noted here that North Korea has been an “existential threat” to our allies—Japan and the Republic of Korea—for quite some time. They must be wryly amused to see the United States fully alarmed only now.
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Two powerful factors, among innumerable others, underwrite North Korea’s successful weapons programs. They are the nature of the regime, and the power dynamics of East Asia.
The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK)—to use the formal title—is less a country as we understand that term than a family-run criminal enterprise. Their homegrown Juche (self-reliance) replaced Marxism/Leninism, the Workers Party of Korea is their single party and the constitution calls for a “dictatorship of the people’s democracy.” This structure produced the only hereditary leadership transitions in the Communist world not once but twice.
Lacking, by design, the usual attributes of nations engaged and profiting from global commerce, the DPRK maintains a global network to provide resources to the center—the Kim family. Such efforts are both overt and covert. The overt include overseas workers, embassies, consulates and declared businesses. The covert efforts include businesses with false identities, false-flag shipping and other means.
Resources are generated by overseas worker remittances, cybercrime, counterfeit currency production, narcotics trafficking, weapons sales, nuclear proliferation, sale of chemical weapons, gambling receipts, rhino horn and ivory smuggling, and many other unregulated operations.
Far from being isolated, this is a global effort working alongside—or underneath—legitimate commerce and trade. Indeed, many DPRK efforts have infiltrated legitimate business and clandestinely operate within those structures.
East Asia’s power dynamics provide a warm, if not congenial, environment for North Korea. China can apply pressure on North Korea, but only up to a point. North Korea’s existence is part of Beijing’s heroic narrative of China “standing up” following Mao’s 1949 victory in their civil war, and their emergence from the “Century of Humiliation.” The entry of Chinese forces into North Korea in 1950 is part of the heroic narrative. Mao’s son, Mao Anying, lies buried in North Korea. A statue to the Chinese People’s Volunteers at a martyr’s cemetery commemorates his service. Former premier Wen Jiabo paid his respects here in 2009.
There are those in all nations in Asia that profit from North Korea’s operations, legal and illegal. Absent strong will to enforce laws, and the ability, they see little reason to sacrifice economic gain to aid a fight “over the water.” In addition, ASEAN’s nations host many North Korean workers. Expelling workers will not be easy. North Korea’s successful February deployment and employment at Kuala Lumpur Malaysia of a weapon of mass destruction—VX, the most potent nerve gas yet devised—demonstrated both skill and will. This was a sophisticated, precise attack with a weapon of proven mass effects. It removed an irritant to the family, half-brother Kim Jong-nam, and served notice of North Korea’s reach and determination throughout Southeast Asia. It also served notice to China that they can be hit. Kim Jong-nam was under China’s protection. Imagine the effect on Malaysia, the rest of Southeast Asia, and the world, if this weapon is deployed to murder crowds.
Perhaps most troublesome, China now has considerable leverage to demand reward for services rendered with North Korea, assuming they would decide to apply pressure. China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the “16+1” initiative in Europe, President Xi Jinping’s assumption of international development leadership at the Davos meeting, and others, fill the vacuum created when we abandoned our own Trans Pacific Partnership multilateral trade agreement. China’s growing military power reinforces perceptions of American political, economic and military withdrawal from Asia. China is again pressuring our ally the Republic of Korea over the installation of Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an action taken in response to the missile and nuclear capability made manifest by North Korea. They will soon challenge Japan’s adoption of Aegis Ashore, punishing Japanese business. China’s territorial acquisition efforts in the South China Sea went unmentioned in the most recent leaders’ meeting in Beijing. Many interpreted this as a signal. China may demand concessions elsewhere in Asia for help with North Korea. Taiwan should be very nervous, as should Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Threatening military destruction of North Korea is not enough—and not needed. Our capabilities are well known, and even exaggerated. Urgently needed are energetic and meaningful U.S. efforts—political, economic, diplomatic, intelligence, legal and most importantly law enforcement—to find and destroy the North Korean support networks. They are hiding in plain sight and existing through our inattention. On-the-spot U.S. leadership in cooperation with allies and friends—by, with and through—is essential. Eye contact and handshakes in the arena with our allies and friends is far more productive than hectoring in Washington and New York.
Wallace C. Gregson, a retired Marine and former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009–11), is currently senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.