North Korea Groundhog Day is coming to an end

Story highlights

  • Gordon Flake: There appears to have been a seismic shift in South Korean policy toward North Korea
  • Chinese thinking on its neighbor also seems to be changing, he says

Gordon Flake is the founding CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia. He spent nearly 25 years working in the Asia Policy think tank community in Washington DC and has visited North Korea on numerous occasions. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Thanks to Bill Murray, most of us now associate Groundhog Day with the sensation of history repeating itself over and over again. There is a similar feeling when it comes to North Korea and the seemingly endless cycle of provocation, international outrage, strongly worded but ultimately ineffective U.N. Security Council statements, and a lack of discernible change in North Korean behavior.

With that in mind, it is hardly surprising that there is widespread skepticism over the latest U.N. Security Council resolution, issued this week following North Korea's testing of a nuclear device in January. After all, we have seen all this before.
Gordon Flake
True, international experts doubt North Korea's claim that it was a hydrogen bomb. However, following previous tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and the country's penchant for proliferation, even a fourth test of a fission device is cause for grave concern, not only to North Korea's near neighbors but also to countries far from its shores.
    Indeed, even before the international community could respond to the January test, North Korea upped the ante with yet another launch of a long-range missile in early February. While North Korea defended the launch as part of its satellite program, the U.N. Security Council made it clear that any "launch that uses ballistic missile technology, even if characterized as a satellite launch or space launch vehicle, contributes to the DPRK's development of nuclear weapon delivery systems and is a serious violation of Security Council resolutions."
    Despite the clarity of such statements and resolutions, there has been little discernible moderation of North Korean behavior -- if anything they appear to have grown increasingly provocative each time the cycle repeats, just this week threatening "indiscriminate" nuclear strikes on the United States and South Korea, and on Wednesday launching two short-range missiles.
    But a closer examination of recent developments reveals three fundamental shifts that suggest the Groundhog Day pattern may be about to be broken.
    First, there appears to have been a seismic shift in South Korean policy toward North Korea. Since 1998, South Korean governments of both conservative and progressive bents have pursued a policy of coexistence with the North, seeking to avoid the costs and risks associated with conflict or an abrupt unification.
    However, in an historic and sweeping speech to the Korean National Assembly on February 15, South Korean President Park Geun-hye made it increasingly clear that the South has abandoned its policy of engagement with North Korea.
    As evidence of this determination, South Korea closed the Kaesong North-South Industrial Complex operating in North Korea, one of the last remaining symbols of inter-Korean cooperation that has weathered numerous previous crises since launching in 2003. Also, after 11 years of partisan gridlock, the South Korean National Assembly passed a landmark North Korea Human Rights Act last Wednesday.
    A second shift was a subsequent agreement between South Korea and the United States to begin formal consultations on the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD.)
    China has opposed the potential deployment of THAAD in Korea and it remains highly sensitive in South Korea due to concerns over the risk of antagonizing China. Needless to say, the most recent North Korean actions have shifted the public debate on the issue in South Korea in a direction that is of concern to Beijing.
    Finally, the U.S. response has also been markedly different. Despite an extremely partisan environment in Washington, heightened further by this year's chaotic elections, on February 18 President Barack Obama signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a 418 to 2 vote and that was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate.
    Few issues today are capable of securing both a signature by President Obama and votes from current presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio.
    In "Groundhog Day," the cycle was broken by a change of heart. There is faint hope that North Korea itself will experience a Bill Murray-style conversion, but there is perhaps greater hope that the three factors listed above might influence how China views North Korea.
    For the past decade, there has been a growing consensus that any real change in North Korea's calculus would require a fundamental shift in policy by China coupled with a willingness to put real pressure on North Korea. Given increasing divergence between the United States and two other permanent members on the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia, a meaningful response to North Korea's most recent provocations was not a forgone conclusion.
    Yet the combination of these factors seems to have shifted Chinese thinking on how best to deal with North Korea. That and skillful diplomacy at the United Nations have resulted in a substantial escalation of sanctions on North Korea which, if implemented properly, will apply veritable economic pressure on the Kim regime.
    And while China is still unlikely to completely abandon its erstwhile ally and its implementation of past sanctions has not been rigorous, Beijing's support for Resolution 2270 is significant.
    Still, it would be unrealistic to expect a dramatic change in North Korean behavior in the short run. The country has given little indication that it is willing or capable of altering course. In fact, as anticipated, North Korea has responded to the passage of the most U.N. action with further missile tests and a sharp increase in rhetoric.
    Hyperbole such as the threat this week to conduct "pre-emptive" nuclear strikes is not new -- North has threatened to turn Seoul in to a "Sea of Fire" since as early as 1994. But what is new is that, more than any previous international response, UNSCR 2270 has real teeth and for the first time sanctions specific sectors of the North Korean economy.
    Together with the bite of closing the Kaesong complex, this latest resolution should put real pressure on Pyongyang at a time when China is also increasingly vocal in its displeasure. If nothing else, the latest round of North Korean provocations has strengthened South Korea-U.S. ties and forged a new consensus in Seoul, Washington and in the Security Council, all of which are essential in handling North Korea.
    Ultimately, whether we see six more weeks of winter or the onset of spring, hold on to your seats -- it is Groundhog Day no longer.