It’s no surprise that New Zealand strongly endorsed the UN Security Council’s latest sanctions against North Korea. One stone accounted for three birds. The first is Wellington’s concern that Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear program threatens regional stability and the prospects for nuclear disarmament. The second is that a response authorized by the Council is a big tick in the international legitimacy and rules-based system boxes. The third is that this response reflected US-China cooperation. That’s not only good for Wellington’s view of regional order, but also for hopes that President Trump may be thinking twice about setting off a trade war with China.
But as New Zealand’s diplomats will know, we have been here before. North Korea has already rejected the new measures and is unlikely to show much sign of slowing its missile and nuclear programs. China may have approved the additional sanctions. And its Foreign Minister criticized North Korea on the sidelines of a recent ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Manila. But few expect Beijing to place maximum pressure on its wayward ally: for all its faults, North Korea remains a buffer state for China. And even if Beijing did maximize the economic pressure, few would expect Pyongyang to suddenly stop in its proliferation tracks. Barring regime collapse, the world will be dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs for some time to come.
Trump’s choice of words from New Jersey has hardly been a calming influence. He might have repeated the standard mantra that all options are on the table. He might have said that in the event of a North Korean attack on a US ally or on US forces or territory, Pyongyang would face a withering American response. But instead he promised that if Pyongyang made “any more threats to the United States…they will be met with fire, fury, and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Threatening the United States (and South Korea, and Japan, and even China) is something North Korea does on a regular basis. A new, rhetorical, threat to the United States has arguably already been delivered: Pyongyang says it is "carefully considering" a plan for missile attacks on Guam, the U.S. territory closest to the peninsula. In other words, Kim Jong-Un is already calling President Trump’s bluff. And if Pyongyang doesn’t want Mr Trump to believe his New Jersey bombast has deterred further missile or nuclear testing, just one such test could raise the bar on this crisis. What happens if the President then worries that his reputation rests on the United States responding forcefully to such an obvious provocation?
Wellington will hope that while the rhetoric has been escalating, the conflict does not. An optimist might think that Mr Trump is playing bad cop to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who as good cop has indicated negotiations are not out of the question. If the long-stalled Six Party Talks resumed, for example, New Zealand would be happy with another step in China-US collaboration on North Korea under Trump and Xi.
But that is probably some time off, if it happens at all. For now North Korea and the United States are involved in an exchange of risky promises. When regional tensions are brewing, a tried and true formulation often appeals to New Zealand governments. This is to call for all sides to take steps to reduce tensions. That formula might come in handy right now, and Bill English’s government should make it clear the region doesn’t just require calm behaviour from Kim Jong-Un but from America’s new leader as well.