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North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has surged to the front of an already crowded agenda for the Group of Twenty (G20) summit convening July 7–8 in Hamburg, Germany. Pyongyang has once again challenged the world’s leading nations to confront the possibility of war. Half a world away in Northeast Asia, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) threatens a conflict that could draw in not only South Korea, but also Japan and three of the world’s leading nuclear powers: China, Russia, and the United States.
North Korea claimed it launched a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4. The missile, if refined, could reach parts of the United States. Pyongyang’s state media boasted the latest missile reached an altitude of 2,802 kilometers, which if correct could provide it with a maximum range of 6,700 kilometers on a standard trajectory. This means that Kim Jong-un may have the ability today to strike Alaska, but not yet the contiguous United States.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump discussed North Korea’s accelerated missile testing with all three of its neighbors just prior to the launch. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, on his first trip to Washington since he was elected on May 9, issued a joint statement with his host on June 30. In the statement, the two leaders “pledged to continue to coordinate closely to achieve [their] shared goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.” President Trump also spoke by telephone to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping prior to Tuesday’s national holiday, anticipating a new launch. On Twitter, Trump made known his frustration not only with Kim Jong-un, but also with Beijing.
The G20 was largely designed for economic discussions, but its members now prefer to discuss the rules and norms of a shifting world order. This year, a more dangerous set of issues are at play, including the war in Syria and North Korea’s nuclear breakout, which bring the competing strategic interests of the U.S., Russia, and China front and center. If Trump is to gain any ground on North Korea, he will need to match the diplomatic skills of Putin and Xi, as well as articulate a strategy that can garner the support of U.S. allies.
The G20 will likely issue a condemnation of North Korea’s provocative missile tests, but even better would be a renewed commitment by its members to fully implement UN Security Council sanctions. Such a statement would not only amplify global condemnation of Pyongyang, but also endorse once again the United Nations as the appropriate body for deliberations on collective security.
The Stakes in Northeast Asia
Japan, South Korea, and the United States have urged the Security Council to once again take up the challenge of a belligerent Pyongyang. The ICBM launch has revealed the failure of past efforts to walk North Korea’s leaders back from their commitment to developing a nuclear arsenal.
For North Korea’s non-nuclear neighbors, this slowly unfolding nightmare has accelerated alarmingly in recent months toward a potential military showdown. Seoul has long lived under the threat of violence from Pyongyang, with its leaders assassinated, its citizens abducted, and its fishermen captured and, at times, killed. In 2010, the North took aim at a South Korean naval vessel, killing nearly half of those on board, and months later shelled a small island, killing civilians and military personnel.
Meanwhile, Japan has listened to the invective of North Korea since the end of the Korean War and discovered that the Kim regime also abducted their citizens—some while traveling in Europe and others directly from Japanese territory. Now Kim Jong-un aims his growing arsenal of missiles at Japan’s exclusive economic zone, demonstrating his ability to launch strikes across the Japanese archipelago. For the first time, the Japanese too feel the direct threat of North Korea’s military.
Applying ‘Maximum Pressure’
The United States, along with South Korea, has stepped up pressure. The day after the missile test, South Korean and U.S. forces conducted their own missile exercises to demonstrate their capacity for a precision strike in response to Northern aggression against South Korea. General Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, stated bluntly, “Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war.”
At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley suggested that time is running out for action against North Korea. Haley, voicing an increased sense of urgency shared by civilian and military leaders alike, noted that diplomatic options are quickly diminishing.
In a press conference, Japan’s prime minister called on China and Russia to offer “a constructive response,” and its foreign minister argued that this is not a time for dialogue, but rather for increased pressure on the Kim regime. The parliament of South Korea adopted a resolution condemning Pyongyang’s missile launch, stating, “The North Korean authorities themselves will have to bear the price for their provocative behavior and we gravely warn that it could result in the Kim Jong-un regime facings its collapse and extinction.”
The Task in Hamburg
In Hamburg, the world’s great powers should undertake a complex diplomatic effort to shape the future strategic order of Northeast Asia. At the very least, the escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula are bad for markets, and a conflict, if one were to break out, could be a disaster for the world economy. The future of the Korean Peninsula and the security of all who live near it is at stake, and the world’s major powers—the United States, China and Russia foremost among them—want a say in how this will turn out. These three powers once came together with South Korea and Japan in the Six-Party Talks to offer Pyongyang a peace treaty and guarantee of its safety in return for denuclearization. North Korea, however, was not willing to bargain away its nuclear card.
Thus, the G20 meeting could reveal the emerging contours of a global response to Kim Jong-un’s ICBM and his defiant walk across the nuclear threshold. Major powers have failed to prevent it, the question now is can they find a way to deny Pyongyang the benefits of nuclear weapons.
Russia and China have already begun to set the tone, opposing the launch but asking to avoid military escalation. In a joint statement, the two nations suggested, as a start to negotiations, that Pyongyang issue a moratorium on missile testing in exchange for South Korea and the United States carrying out no further large-scale joint exercises. In the past, Kim’s father accepted negotiated moratoriums on testing—in talks with the United States in 1999 and in talks with Japan in 2002—to open negotiations on broader issues. But Kim Jong-un is not his father, and neither Putin nor Xi have a personal relationship with him. In fact, neither has met him since he assumed power.
Whether Moscow and Beijing will be seen as honest brokers in efforts to confront North Korea remains to be seen. But their efforts to oppose the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD), the new missile defenses that Washington and Seoul have deployed, have raised concern among U.S. allies that they are seeking to derail the alliances that have deterred aggression and kept the peace in Northeast Asia for almost seventy years. China holds all of the economic cards when it comes to putting pressure on the DPRK, but Russia too has a stake in preventing escalation.
No Easy Answers
For North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, this security crisis should resonate deeply, as Moscow’s grumbling over upgrades to their own defenses has raised similar concerns. For President Trump, the stakes for this multilateral meeting are high, and he can ill afford the diffidence and isolation that characterized his last trip to Europe.
While the current crisis may affect Asia the most, how Washington manages it will have global consequences. Denying Kim Jong-un’s ambitions could bring the nations of the world together, or it could leave them unable to unite. The G20 is an unwieldy forum for generating diplomatic consensus, but it can assert how high the stakes are, and the United States can demonstrate there that it is interested in and committed to working with others to confront some of the world’s most serious and difficult problems.