This North Korea crisis could escalate beyond everyone’s control
By Ian Bremmer North Korea could become Obama’s first true foreign-policy crisis. The country’s second nuclear test has drawn international condemnation –including some unusually tough language from China — and we’ll surely see a UN Security Council resolution expressing more of the same. But there’s just not much policy flexibility here, and therefore not many ...
By Ian Bremmer
By Ian Bremmer
North Korea could become Obama’s first true foreign-policy crisis. The country’s second nuclear test has drawn international condemnation –including some unusually tough language from China — and we’ll surely see a UN Security Council resolution expressing more of the same. But there’s just not much policy flexibility here, and therefore not many ways of cooling things off.
The six party talks were already broken down, and the North Koreans had been steadily upping the ante over the past two months — with increasingly belligerent rhetoric, the arrest of two American journalists, and new satellite and missile test launches. None of these actions has brought the North Koreans much satisfaction, and they’ve contributed to a harder-line Obama administration response than was otherwise likely — including the push through of yet another UN Security Council resolution and the establishment of preconditions for new talks.
It’s hard to know how much of North Korea’s aggressiveness flows from economic necessity and how much suggests a shift toward a more overtly hostile policy. But it’s perfectly clear that Pyongyang is responding to a geopolitical squeeze that it has found increasingly uncomfortable.
This is not simply "belligerent business as usual," and the second nuclear test is a big deal for the North Koreans. First, they know they’re crossing a "red line" for their friends in Beijing. (Apparently, North Korea took the unusual step of giving the United States a one-hour heads-up before the test, while saying nothing to Beijing.) Second, they only have enough nuclear fuel for a very small arsenal (perhaps 6-8 devices in total). In other words, they knew in advance they better make this test count.
Tensions will likely subside for a few weeks. The Obama administration has responded with the diplomatic equivalent of outrage but will ultimately need to back off preconditions and recognize the need to return to the bargaining table — particularly since this will be the price for China to continue to focus its frustration on Pyongyang. The next question will be at what point the United States and China turn the economic aid back on. There’s no hard-line domestic faction pushing the Obama administration for tougher sanctions (as there is on Iran). But the Japanese government will look extremely unfavorably on rewarding North Korean provocations, and the White House will weigh that reality with care.
If officials in the U.S. and North Korean governments decide to push the current conflict further, we’ll see an active restart of the nuclear program and provocative border incidents — disruption of neighboring shipping and potentially a limited incursion into the demilitarized zone (DMZ). We could even begin to see some market impact in South Korea.
For now, North Korea appears determined to push the envelope. The United States can’t give Pyongyang what it wants. All that’s left is for the two sides to negotiate their way back to the negotiating table. That may take time, and the problem is growing that, in the interim, neither side has total control of where the conflict might go next.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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