A public apology for death of American tourist Otto Warmbier is the best way for North Korea to show it did not plan this tragedy, keep over-zealous public security officials in line and improve the chances of any dialogue with the outside world.
UN Security Council 2 June adopted Resolution 2356 in response to North Korea (DPRK)’s recent missile tests, accusing DPRK of “flagrant disregard” for previous UN resolutions. DPRK state media accused U.S. and China of conspiring to initiate resolution. Beijing called on Pyongyang to “heed the call of the international community” and said China committed to denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula, but wishes for “good-neighbourly and friendly” relations with DPRK. During meeting of high level officials in Washington 21-22 June, U.S. reportedly told China to exert greater economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang; Chinese media reported two sides agreed on need for complete denuclearisation. U.S. official 23 June said DPRK had tested rocket engine that could be part of preparation for intercontinental ballistic missile, and officials late month reported Trump growing more frustrated with China. U.S. Department of Treasury 29 June issued notification against China’s Bank of Dandong plus one Chinese company and two Chinese individuals it said were linked to DPRK. Came as South Korean (ROK) President Moon arrived in Washington for summit 29-30 June; initial reports imply areas of consensus between ROK and U.S., with Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) deployment to ROK, Trump’s wish to change U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and Moon’s DPRK policy as three key variables. 29 June Treasury designations reported as timed to pressure China prior to G20 summit in Hamburg 7-8 July; Treasury denied. U.S. anger grew after American tourist Otto Warmbier, arrested during trip to North Korea in March 2016 and sentenced to fifteen years in labour camp for “hostile acts” against state over alleged attempt to steal propaganda banner, died 19 June days after his release and repatriation to U.S., suffering from “severe neurological injury” sustained after his conviction.
Prospects are bleak that the Six-Party Talks can lead to a denuclearised Korean peninsula, notably since North Korea has made nuclear weapons an integral part of its identity. The international community must open new channels of communication and interaction, give greater roles to international organisations, the private sector and civil society.
In the shadow of growing North Korean threats, South Korea needs to reform its intelligence apparatus to restore public confidence while enhancing the country’s intelligence capacity.
North Korea’s belligerent behaviour is testing the patience of China, its principal backer, but a consequential Chinese policy change, which the U.S. and its allies hope for, is not likely soon.
Despite last week’s abrupt shuffle at the top of the military leadership, Kim Jŏng-ŭn appears to be firmly established as the new leader of North Korea, completing a faster and smoother power transition than many experts anticipated.
Although North Korea has offered unconditional dialogue since January, South Korea is maintaining a tough policy line towards the North as Seoul approaches a year of electoral campaign politics. The risk of conflict remains serious, particularly in the area near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the military demarcation in the Yellow Sea.
As the number of defectors from North Korea arriving in the South has surged in the past decade, reconfiguring integration programs for them has become crucial.
Chinese analysts continue to argue that no amount of pressure, short of what might cause a collapse, will bring North Korea to denuclearize.
China likely recognises that Pyongyang's technical progress has increased Washington's threat perception and sense of urgency.
North Korea could have been a subject on which China and the U.S. could have worked together to build confidence and trust between each other, but instead it's become a source of deeper mistrust.
Originally published in The Interpreter