Every U.S. Administration of the past two decades has faced the same unpalatable truth in dealing with North Korea: Pyongyang, as the party with little to lose compared with its adversaries, sets the agenda, and Washington and its partners are forced to respond. And North Korea’s willingness to act crazy — and its capacity to destroy Seoul through conventional missile artillery fire as well as the nuclear devices it has built and tested — means that its policy of extortion has been remarkably effective, with frequent acts of outrageous provocation usually going largely unpunished.
With a new the mantle of leadership of the Kim family dynasty having passed to young Kim Jong-un following his father’s sudden death in December, the neophyte leader is expected to try and show his chops to a potentially skeptical military elite by engaging in some new provocations of his own. So it could be a rough ride for all the stakeholders in the North Pacific security equation.
Having little leverage of its own over the Hermit Kingdom, the U.S. has long relied on China to keep Beijing’s sometime protege in line. But while China may share Washington’s interest in preventing a complete security meltdown, Beijing sees the survival of the regime in Pyongyang as being in its own interests. The last thing China wants, right now, is a collapse that would bring a flood of refugees across its border, and put a U.S. ally on its doorstep as a result of Korean reunification. The Obama Administration has declared its intention to shift the U.S. strategic priority from the Middle East to Asia, putting geopolitical competition with China at the center of Washington’s foreign policy. Recent moves by the Administration point unambiguously toward growing strategic competition with Beijing — from the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia and U.S. statements of support for China’s neighbors in territorial disputes with Beijing to the U.S. opening to Burma (now that its military leaders appear ready to take advantage of the U.S.-China rivalry to reinforce their own strategic independence). Growing strategic competition casts a shadow over prospects for productive partnership in managing North Korea. Making things easier for the U.S. in North Asia may not figure very high in Beijing’s priorities right now.