South Korea, first responder after Pyongyang rocket’s red glare

Against the wishes of the international community, the North Koreans have launched another long-range rocket, hard on the heels of their fourth nuclear test. So far there is no consensus on what, if anything, the world should do about this, other than to condemn it.

South Korean news flash of Feb. 7 North Korean missile launch.

South Korean news flash of Feb. 7 North Korean missile launch.

In the US, Congress has voted for a new round of economic sanctions to be sent to President Obama. The Japanese have announced new sanctions and are dusting off a suite of older sanctions that were lifted in 2014 to facilitate discussions with North Korea about the fate of abducted Japanese citizens.

China, for its part, has a “different definition of more serious [sanction] measures” and points to the “seriousness” of its dispatch of a senior diplomat to Pyongyang, who subsequently failed to dissuade the Kim regime from launching its rocket. The Chinese are willing to send a message of displeasure to Kim Jong-un, in case he has not already gotten the message, but they do not want to cause the regime any material pain for fear of destabilizing North Korea.

The United Nations is discussing new sanctions, subject to the veto power of China and Russia, even while a UN standing committee reports that previous UN sanctions have been easily evaded.

South Korea, which is more exposed to North Korea’s wrath than anyone else, has taken the lead in expressing its unhappiness in a material way.  In addition to ramping up its border broadcasts into the North, pushing a North Korea human rights bill that has been stalled in the National Assembly for years, and planning for the largest ever joint military exercises with the US this spring, President Park has suspended operations in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The anomalous industrial enclave just north of the DMZ employs some 54,000 North Korean laborers who make products in South Korean-owned factories.

The Kaesong Dream

South Korean gate to Kaesong Industrial Complex

South Korean gate to Kaesong Industrial Complex

Through bad times and worse times, the complex, opened in late 2004, has kept operating, except in 2013 when the North Korean government pulled its workers out for five months to protest the annual US-South Korean spring military exercises. After that closure, the two sides pledged not to close the industrial park under any circumstances. South Korea has now breached that agreement.

Although operations at Kaesong have merely been “suspended,” it is highly unlikely that the factories will ever reopen, just as the South Korean tourist facilities at Kumgang Mountain, just north of the DMZ on the east side of the peninsula, never reopened after a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean soldier in 2008.  Nor is there any prospect of a resumption of planning for a North Korean pipeline and railroad to connect China and Russia with South Korea. At Kaesong, the North Korean government will lose about $100 million in annual fees, taxes, and wages, and the South Koreans will lose all the facilities, which have been “frozen” under the jurisdiction of the North Korean army.

In fact, the monetary loss is not of great significance. In South Korea’s huge economy Kaesong is virtually invisible, and it accounts for only about 1% of North Korea’s annual trade, most of which goes instead to China.

But the symbolic loss is huge because Kaesong was the last link between the two Koreas. South Korea had always hoped that by demonstrating its good faith, it might prepare its northern neighbor for the day when its economy and society would merge with South Korea’s. Now the dream is over, at least for now.

In China’s Lap

President Park had hoped to gradually build up trust between the two Koreas by such projects as Kaesong. Now the trust seems to have evaporated and a new policy will have to be formulated. North Korea is thrown to the mercies of the Chinese, who would prefer that their backward neighbor open itself to other countries to lessen the burden on China and create a measure of stability in the region.

US-made Thaad launcher

US-made Thaad launcher

To make matters worse for China, South Korea has also announced that it plans to go ahead with the acquisition of the American Thaad anti-missile system that the Chinese strongly object to. For this turn of events, the Chinese have no one to blame but themselves, since they have failed to rein in their obstreperous neighbor. In the years ahead, a US-South Korea-Japan alliance might harden against China and North Korea, moving China closer to a Cold War environment, just as Russia has found itself sliding into a new Cold War in Europe.

The UN has yet to begin serious debate on steps to stop North Korea from further development of its nuclear and missile programs. Despairing of reaching an international consensus, South Korea has taken its own first step, soon to be backed up by the US and Japan. To judge by recent history, the Kim regime will retaliate against South Korea in its own good time, further alienating itself from its neighbors and the international community, and presenting another challenge to peace on the Korean peninsula.

Dr. Kongdan Oh is a Senior Asia Specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA).  Her most recent book is Hidden People of North Korea:  Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, second edition.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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