For North Korea, reeling under severe United Nations sanctions, conducting missile tests has become a regular expression of political defiance and technological progress. Just last year, showing its continuing contempt for UN resolutions, it tested at least two dozen missiles, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Yet, its first missile test since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November -- conducted on Feb. 12 -- has been speciously portrayed as a major challenge to the new administration in Washington, with some analysts like ex-CIA chief James Woolsey even calling North Korea the top national security problem at present.
The fact is that the latest test did not involve a long-range ballistic missile, which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had said in his New Year's Day speech was almost ready for launch. The fired missile, which traveled 500km, was just a medium-range type that Pyongyang has tested multiple times in different variants. And although North Korea said the test involved a new missile model with a solid fuel-powered engine -- a technological advance that facilitates mobility and rapid launch -- this is not the country's first solid-fueled missile. As Pyongyang admits, the new surface-to-surface missile is based on its solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Lost in the alarmism over the new missile is the fact that the test occured just after Trump called North Korea a threat. Kim had been on good behavior ever since Trump's unexpected election triumph, hoping that the new American president would adopt a fresh tack, in keeping with what Trump had said during the campaign -- that he would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader over a hamburger. For its part, Pyongyang, through an editorial in its state media outlet, DPRK Today, had called Trump a "wise politician."
Last year, Kim -- the world's youngest head of state -- tested a nuclear device, purportedly a hydrogen bomb, on the eve of his January 8 birthday. International media speculated that this year Kim would celebrate his birthday by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, although he had referred to a long-range missile, not an ICBM, in his New Year's Day speech. Kim, however, delayed his first missile test since Trump's victory until much later -- conducting it less than 36 hours after Trump, in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House, said that "defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat" was "a very, very high priority" for him.
Trump's tempered response to the missile test has drawn cynical comments from critics citing his bombastic January 3 tweet. Relying on misleading media reports that Kim had threatened to test an ICBM, Trump posted on Twitter: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!" Truth be told, North Korea is far from developing an ICBM, as the latest missile test underscores.
Still, Trump is being publicly advised to ratchet up military pressure on Pyongyang. After initially reacting with restraint to the missile test, Trump said: "Obviously, North Korea is a big, big problem, and we will deal with that very strongly."
The debate on how to punish North Korea for breaching UN resolutions or tame its nuclear and missile ambitions should not obscure the larger issues involved. Three key matters stand out.
Firstly, the sanctions-only approach toward North Korea spearheaded by the United States has been a conspicuous failure, encouraging Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile programs. With little to lose, North Korea has responded to heavy sanctions by testing nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016. It has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to conduct nuclear tests in the twenty-first century. North Korea has also considerably enhanced its missile capabilities, though they remain subregionally confined in range.
Sanctions without engagement have never worked. In the North Korean case, the sanctions-only approach has done exactly the opposite of its intended goal -- instead of halting or retarding nuclearization, it has accelerated it. Far from deterring, slapping additional sanctions after every major test has had the effect of egging North Korea on.
Secondly, Kim has repeatedly signaled that he wants his internationally isolated nation to escape from the clutches of its millennial rival China. Significantly, he has not visited China since assuming power in 2011, although paying obeisance in Beijing was customary for his father and grandfather, who ruled before him.
Indeed, China's state media has accused Kim of pursing "de-Sinification" of his hermit kingdom, while the North Korean ruler has presented himself as a tough leader who will not allow his country to become a Chinese pawn.
Mao Zedong famously said China and North Korea were as close as lips are to teeth. But when China last March joined hands with the U.S. to approve the toughest new UN sanctions in two decades against North Korea, it highlighted its virtually ruptured relationship with Pyongyang.
Yet, oddly, Washington has attempted to push Kim further into the Chinese dragnet, instead of seizing on the opportunity created by his desire to unlock frozen ties with America. Some U.S. scholars have even suggested that Trump seek a grand bargain with Chinese President Xi Jinping on North Korea. Given that North Korea has sought direct engagement with Washington to offset Chinese leverage over it, nothing is more galling to Pyongyang than U.S. efforts to use Beijing as a diplomatic instrument against it. Still, American policy has effectively handed Beijing the North Korea card to play against South Korea, Japan and the U.S. itself.
In truth, China is already putting the squeeze on North Korea, especially since that country carried out its most powerful nuclear test last September. Butits enforcement of UN sanctions in a controlled way has failed to change Kim's calculus. Beijing, of course, values North Korea as a buffer state and does not want Kim's regime to collapse: A reunified and resurgent Korea allied with Washington will open a new threat, including bringing American troops to China's border. Chinese and American interests diverge fundamentally.
And thirdly, the U.S. has no credible military option against North Korea. Any military strikes to degrade the North's nuclear and missile capabilities will provoke Pyongyang to unleash its artillery-barrage power against the South, triggering widespread destruction and a full-fledged war involving America. The planned U.S. deployment in South Korea of the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD -- which has never been battle -- tested - is no real answer to North Korea's nuclearization or to the North's artillery choke-hold on Seoul. China, with some justification, sees the THAAD plan as essentially directed against it.
If there is any credible U.S. option to deal with Pyongyang, it is to give diplomacy a chance, with the goal of forging a peace treaty with the North to formally end the Korean War -- officially just in a cease-fire since 1953. Denuclearization should be integral to the terms of such a peace treaty. But if denuclearization is made the sole purpose of engagement with the North, diplomacy will not succeed. President Barack Obama's administration simply refused to talk unless Pyongyang first pledged to denuclearize. The North's only leverage is the nuclear card, which it will not surrender without securing a comprehensive peace deal.
When repeated rounds of tight sanctions not only fail to achieve their objectives but counterproductively trigger opposite effects, a new approach becomes inescapable. Through a carrot-and-stick approach of easing some sanctions and keeping more biting ones in place, diplomacy can, by persisting with what will be difficult and tough negotiations, clinch a deal to end one of the world's longest-lingering conflicts and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including "Water: Asia's New Battleground," the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.