North Korea's Next Move

And What the Obama Administration Can Do to Calm the Region

Kim Jong Un uses binoculars in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July 15, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

As if the world didn’t have enough problems, North Korea seems to be gearing up to add a few more. According to the New York Times, commercial satellite imagery has confirmed that Pyongyang recently upgraded its main satellite launching facility, which will enable it to test an intercontinental missile. Pyongyang has been unusually quiet in recent months, which makes the world all the more nervous as it awaits North Korea’s 4th nuclear test and probable ICBM test.

All this follows a deliberate, high-profile Chinese snub of North Korea; in July, Xi Jinping, China’s president, cozied up to South Korea to underscore Beijing’s dissatisfaction with North Korea. This diplomatic gambit scored points in Seoul and sparked anger in Pyongyang. But that isn’t the end of the story. If North Korea does conduct another test, the spotlight would land on Beijing -- North Korea’s chief enabler. And therein lies the long-term dilemma in Chinese–South Korean relations.

Although South Korean angst and anger over Japan’s continual flirtation with revising its bitter history with Korea is topic A in Seoul, it may ultimately rate a distant second compared with the longer-term problem in Northeast Asia: Korean apprehension about China’s role when it comes to the future of the Korean Peninsula. The Koreas have a long and troubled history with China. Beijing invaded the Korean kingdoms several hundred times, but (apart from the Korean War) not since the fourteenth century. In a speech delivered during his July visit to Seoul, Xi emphasized Chinese cooperation with Korea against Japan. These days, China is the chief enabler of North Korea via food, fuel, and investment; for most of this century, it has been North Korea’s number one trading partner. That support both ensures the perpetration of a divided Korea and helps China maintain a buffer between itself and U.S.-allied South Korea.

At the same time, however, Beijing is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and so Seoul consciously seeks

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