Rising Tensions on the Korean Peninsula: The Latest with John Park


We know there has been a resounding rhetoric,
which has concerned the international community, coming out of Pyongyang. We’re going to begin
by actually asking John about the current context and thoughts he has about the current
security dilemma on the peninsula. John, welcome! Thank you very much Steve. It’s a pleasure
being here at The Korea Society again. To share some thoughts on the current developments
on the region, I’d like to contextualize in terms of how I’m seeing some of the trends
going on through the lens of new leadership in the region. This is some that is something
frankly not a surprise. This has been anticipated in terms of change of leadership in all of
the countries in the region at approximately the same time period. I think with that there
is opportunity to see in some countries the consolidation of power as we’re seeing in
North Korea by many accounts, and seen in China, with new leadership there. The power
of consolidation introduces, I think, interesting elements and ways to look at these recent
developments. When we zero in specifically on the Korean Peninsula, these almost daily
threats coming out of North Korea, and reactions throughout the South Korea-U.S. alliance,
by way of last week overflight of B-52 bombers, and most recently B-2 stealth bombers. This
is by many accounts different from what we’ve seen in the past. I think in terms of one
type of development I would zero in on and emphasize how it’s different is the way in
which North Korea walked away from these hot-lines. There can be an interpretation that’s more
symbolic, to heighten the threat, but in an operational sense, the crisis management capabilities
in the room within which the parties can manage potential escalations that can happen. Those
spaces are drastically reduced when you do have these measures, such as walking away
and announcing null and void mechanisms that have in the past been quite pivotal. The key
thing here in all of these developments, I think, is to look very carefully at a new
leader in North Korea, who I think from an outsider’s perspective, is probing the different
parties around him in the different countries. One way that I frame it is almost as if the
North Korean leadership and Kim Jong-un is conducting a lot of observations right now.
For each threat, looking at the different reactions and almost jotting those down in
a book of flinches to see how these new leadership elements react to these elevation of tensions.
I think that’s very important operational intelligence for new structure like the Kim
Jong-un leadership and something that potentially can be configured in certain ways for future
interactions later down the road as well. It seems, John, that the reaction in the international
community despite the “hysteria”, as one of the European news services put it, out of
Pyongyang has actually been mutes. There has been a very constrained response, certainly
on the part of Washington and Seoul. In fact, President Park Geun-hye has sent food aid
north and has been in some gentle reminders relative to her commitment to trustpolitik.
How do you play that against the expectations of North Korea with this crisis language?
With this crisis language, the big marker of the current round of escalation can be
traced back to the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2094. There were reaffirmation
of previous measures, but new measures where we saw the designation of North Korean diplomats
in terms of some of their money, career activities, and so forth. The reaction from North Korea
was quite visceral. In a macro-sense if you look at what happened, it was the United States
and China coordinating very closely in getting that resolution passed. I think that for North
Korea, that type of cooperation is lethal if it is maintained because it drastically reduces
the space in which it can maneuver and leverage different parties off of each other. One way
for North Korea to get that type of cooperation by way of heightened tension between Washington
and Beijing is to elevate tensions to the level where the Chinese come in and basically
ask all the parties to exercise restraint, backtrack on some of these cooperative areas,
and essentially start to get the triggering of criticism from Washington that China is
coddling North Korea rather than reining in an ally during a very critical escalation
period. The element here that I think we can see in terms of this almost North Korean
ratcheting of tensions and getting a type of reaction that would invoke some aspect
of a response from China is the U.S. use of their B-53 bombers last week and the B-2 bombers
now. Although those are clearly a message designed for the North Korean regime that’s
the deterrent stance of the United States and North Korea is very strong. It’s something
that shouldn’t be invoked at any time. So try to counsel North Korea not to engage in
adventurism. For certain elements in China, those types of capabilities, right at their
doorstep, feeds into their existing concerns about containment, that the Asia-Pacific re-balancing
is nothing but a formalization of this containment where the U.S., through its friends and allies,
is encircling China and preventing its rise. That’s the part where my take on this is if
North Korea were to get that part right, you suddenly have an elevation of tensions to
the point where they break that pattern of cooperation between Beijing and Washington.

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