With the world focused on a major terrorist attack in Belgium and the intensifying presidential race, a renowned expert on the Far East says North Korean missile tests and their detention of an American college student ought to be very concerning to the Obama administration and other world leaders.
In recent days, North Korea test-fired numerous ballistic missiles in a manner designed to menace its neighbors and also sentenced University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for tearing down a poster of the late Kim Jong-Il inside a North Korean hotel.
The missile tests followed a statement from dictator Kim Jong-Un that he wanted the military to have nuclear weapons ready for use “at any time.”
Columnist and author Gordon Chang has studied China and North Korea up close for years and is author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World.” He says the communist regime has reasons for doing what it’s doing.
“North Korea will continue to test short and intermediate-range missiles. They want to show their customers that these things work. Also they want to rattle the international community,” said Chang.
But he says the U.S. better be paying attention too.
“What we’re concerned about, however, is their testing of long-range missiles. They do have two launchers that can reach 48 states. Therefore, we’ve got to be concerned because eventually, if not now, they’ll be able to put nuclear warheads on those missiles and therefore threaten America,” said Chang.
Chang says much of what we’re seeing from North Korea in recent weeks is out of fear of the world cracking down on it’s behavior.
“We see a number of sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea, not only by the UN but unilaterally by South Korea, Japan and the United States. North Korea’s got to be concerned that these are actually going to throttle its economy, especially the economy as it relates to the regime members,” said Chang.
Instead of Kim acting more responsibly to ease sanctions, he expects the dictator to antagonize the world even more.
“Kim Jong-Un, the ruler, is going to continue to do these things, including making threats about incinerating Manhattan, which he did about four or five days ago, as he tries to change the status quo,” said Chang.
All of this leads back to the question the United States and the world have been trying to answer for decades: What is the most effective response?
Chang says it should start with being serious about the new sanctions.
“What we need to do is not only impose sanctions but, more important, to enforce them. There’s a pretty heavy set of sanctions already in place before this year, when there was the nuke and missile test,” said Chang. “If we actually started to enforce these sanctions, we might get the attention of China, especially if we impose sanctions on Chinese banks doing business with North Korea.”
He says getting China on the right side of the North Korea problem is pivotal.
“We haven’t been willing to do that for various reasons, neither this administration nor the prior one. We’ve got to look at North Korea in a very new light and understand we have very little time to solve this problem,” said Chang.
In addition to the ominous aspects of the North Korean threat, Chang says the United States should also be taking advantage of the dysfunction in Pyongyang.
“This administration really has yet to come to grips with one fact and that is that inside the regime in North Korea, there seems to be a lot of intense infighting, especially Kim Jong-Un struggling with his four-star officers. He’s killed at least two of them in the last 13 months and a third one has recently disappeared,” said Chang.
Chang implores leaders to see the challenges posed by North Korea with clarity.
“We can talk all we want about what North Korea should do, but the issue is what North Korea is going to do. I don’t think the policy community in Washington and in other capitals has really understood the dynamic, the very dangerous dynamic, in the Kim regime,” said Chang.
The Warmbier case presents a very different headache for U.S. officials, but it’s one they’ve faced several times before. Chang says North Korea relishes having American citizens in custody to use as “bargaining chips.” He believes Warmbier made a mistake even travelling to North Korea and should have known better than to pull down the poster, but the punishment grossly exceeds the offense.
“I don’t think he should have gone to North Korea. Americans should not do that. It is extraordinarily dangerous. Now that he has done it, we need to continue to put pressure on North Korea to release him because obviously this sentence is way out of bounds for what anyone would expect for something like this. This was a prank. It doesn’t deserve 15 years hard labor,” said Chang.
Chang says the U.S. cannot reward North Korea by making concessions in exchange for Warmbier.
“We should not reward the regime for taking Americans because all that does is give them incentive to take more. We sent President Carter, President Clinton, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. These are big propaganda coups for North Korea, so they get something when we take Americans back who have been released from captivity,” said Chang.
He says a smarter analysis reveals the U.S. has more leverage in these situations than it realizes.
“The regime has an incentive to let these people go anyway. They do not want to hold them. So we should play a little tougher with them on this because we need to stop this dynamic. It’s great to get Warmbier out, but we’ve got to worry about the next Warmbier and the one after that,” said Chang.