It’s never good when North Korea is in the news. On Thursday, the Hermit Kingdom launched two short-range ballistic missiles in to the Sea of Japan. The pair were similar to one the DPRK test-fired on Friday. Later that day, American authorities seized a coal ship used by North Korea for sanction-busting.
The missile tests were the first by North Korea in more than 500 days. Yet, the self-imposed moratorium on long-range testing remains. The state media, whose prophesies of mass annihilation and lakes of fire normally rival that of any shortwave radio preacher, assured the world that nothing was amiss. “The recent drill conducted by our army is nothing more than part of the regular military training,” the Korean Central News Agency said in a statement. “It has neither targeted anyone, nor led to an aggravation of situation in the region.”
According to U.S. authorities, the appropriately-named M/V Wise Honest was unloading coal in Russian and Chinese ports, and returning to North Korea with heavy machinery. “Coal exports have been one of North Korea’s most proficient ways of earning foreign currency,” research associate Cameron Trainer told NPR. Indonesia actually seized the ship in April 2018, before turning it over to the Americans. The incident illustrates the difficulty the Americans have had for years enforcing sanctions, and the ease with which North Korea has been able to get around them.
The United States has been trying different approaches with North Korea for decades and attaining the same result anyway. Since the death of Kim Il Sung, and his near-denuclearization of the country in 1994, Republican and Democratic presidents have tried everything— dangling carrots and prodding with sticks— to no avail. The regime has powerful incentives not to give up their nukes.
Back in the States, the Trump administration is still hopeful a deal can be reached by year’s end. President Trump tweeted on Saturday that Kim Jong Un “does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated the U.S. was content with Pyongyang continuing to test missiles, so long as they didn’t involve ICBMs, “the ones that threaten the United States for sure.”
Everything with North Korea is ultimately connected to China which is involved in a titanic economic, military and social struggle with the United States. It’s no coincidence that Kim usually acts out shortly after US/China trade negotiations take a negative turn. The Kim family have been clients of the Chinese ever since Mao saved them from oblivion during the Korean War. China does not currently see a unified Korean Peninsula, or a pacifist North Korea, as in their strategic interests.
Korea is just one pawn in China’s great chess game with The West. Trump’s negotiations have neutralized the worst of Kim’s behavior for now and avoided deadly conflict. However, if the new tariffs against China start to bite, North Korean belligerence is just one of the many ways that Xi Jinping can push back.