Written by Ji Yeon Hong.

The new year came to Asia with numerous challenges to be addressed. Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, once again conveyed a hostile message to the world as soon as the new year began, declaring in his New Year’s Day speech that he has “a nuclear button on his desk ready for use”. Last year, 2017, is marked as a year of escalating tensions over the North Korean nuclear weapon and missile programs. Although the crisis has lasted over a decade since the first nuclear test in 2006, experts agree that the crisis entered a new phase last year with the technological advances that the North Korean regime successfully demonstrated through consecutive tests of nuclear weapons and test-fires of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

In 2018, the North Korean leadership is likely to continue to demonstrate its technological capability through tests and missile launches, while Kim Jong-un occasionally claims that the possibility of dialogue is still open.

Three days before Christmas, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a new set of US-drafted sanctions on North Korea that would put further pressure on North Korea’s economy. The new sanctions included a near total ban on fuel exports to North Korea, a tightening of restrictions on ship-to-ship transfers of energy and other prohibited commodities and a two-year deadline for most North Korean overseas workers to go home.

Although the sanctions were passed by the Security Council, its members have diverse stances toward the issue, making the long-term solution to the North Korean crisis as challenging as ever. Furthermore, the North Korean issue gets even harder to address because those countries most involved face their own domestic and international challenges. Particularly in 2017, many countries have gone through significant changes in their domestic political arenas, which have affected and constrained reactions to North Korea’s aggregating hostility. Here, I discuss four major changes that occurred in 2017 and how those changes are likely to affect the North Korea issue in 2018.

Increased Threats from North Korea

Since 2006, DPRK has conducted six nuclear tests: 2006, 2009, 2012, twice in 2016, and in 2017. The latest test in September 2017, which yielded to a 5.7 to 6.3 magnitude tremor, was claimed to be a hydrogen bomb. It is impossible to verify the exact technological advances that North Korea has achieved, but the detected earthquake magnitude, which was about ten times larger than the previous test in 2016, alerted the nuclear experts to the possibility that one of the most secretive and totalitarian regimes might now possess the most dangerous weapon in the world. In late November, North Korea launched its most advanced ICBM yet, called Hwasong-15. This test showed that, without counting the weight of a nuclear warhead, North Korea’s current ICBM can reach anywhere in the United States. In 2018, the North Korean leadership is likely to continue to demonstrate its technological capability through tests and missile launches, while Kim Jong-un occasionally claims that the possibility of dialogue is still open.

The Trump Administration

From the beginning, President Trump and his administration have hinted at significant changes in their policies toward North Korea. Amid increasing tension with the North, President Trump declared that the policy of “strategic patience” adopted by the Obama administration is over, which threw the geopolitics in East Asia into uncertainty. At the same time, the exchanges of bellicose words between North Korea and President Trump in 2017 convinced the world of a possibility of an armed strike from either side. Both North Korea and the US have shown a willingness to use military options. Despite the war of words, however, Stephen Haggard argues that US policy has changed little from that of previous administrations. The biggest change so far has been the adoption of secondary sanctions by the US government which targeted Chinese and Russian companies for their connections to North Korea.

New Great Power, China

Xi Jinping announced the national ambition of attaining the China Dream at the beginning of his second term as the secretary of Chinese Communist Party in October. With China’s rise as a global economic and political superpower, its foreign policy has shifted from that of a developing country to a global superpower in competition with the incumbent superpower, the United States. The issue of North Korea is becoming a point of increasing competition between two superpowers. As Hee-ok Lee points out, China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula is now part of the “bigger framework” of US-China relations rather than bilateral South Korea-China or North Korea-China relations. For this reason, China’s distancing from North Korea has not resulted in a closer relationship between China and South Korea. Neither did China’s distancing from South Korea due to the THAAD deployment from the United States cause any visible change in China’s North Korea policy.

South Korea’s New Government

South Korea went through a series of political turmoil and changes in 2017. After months-long candlelight rallies attended by hundreds of thousand South Korean citizens who called for the resignation of Park Geun-hye, the members of the National Assembly approved the impeachment motion of President Park on December 9, 2016. The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment in a unanimous decision of eight constitutional judges on March 10, 2017. Within two months from the verdict, the new president Moon Jae-in was elected. President Moon was the candidate from the progressive political party, which has emphasised conversation and cooperation with North Korea. Since his election, President Moon has ruled out another war on the Korean Peninsula. He repeatedly invited North Korea to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics which will be held in February 2018, and Kim Jong-un replied that he was open to dialogue with Seoul to participate in the Olympics in his New Year’s Day message.

What to expect in 2018

At this moment, scholars and experts are not optimistic with regard to developments in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. North Korea is likely to continue the tests and demonstration of technological achievements. China and Russia are likely to remain ambivalent toward North Korean issues.

While it is still unclear how sincere Kim Jong-un is regarding communications with South Korea and whether North Korea will indeed attend the Olympics in Pyeongchang, North Korea reopened the border hotline with the South on January 3 and accepted South’s proposal for high-level dialogue which will be held on January 9 for the first time since December 2015. The tension between the US and DPRK meanwhile remains undiminished, further complicated by the military alliance between the US and South Korea. At the same time, the United States has been the leading advocate of sanctions against North Korea both within and beyond the United Nations. Trump rebutted Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech by saying his nuclear button is bigger than Kim’s. The official position of the Trump administration so far is to deny Pyongyang’s ability to strike the US mainland territory. Amid small signs of progress, there thus remains ample cause for concern in the year ahead.

Ji Yeon Hong (@jeanjiyeonhong) is an assistant professor in Social Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Her research focuses on authoritarian politics with a particular focus on East Asian countries. Image credit: 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade-Korea/Flickr. 

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