Do we need China to deal with North Korea?

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On March 6th North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan days after promising to retaliate for the joint U.S. and South Korean military drills taking place at the time. Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe condemned the launch as “an extremely dangerous action.”

The launch follows another missile test on February 12th when Pyongyang fired a Pukguksong-2, a new medium-to-long range ballistic missile. With the latest tests this brings the total number of recent North Korean missile launches to five.

Since Kim Jong-Un took over as the “Supreme Leader” of North Korea he has fired 7 to 8 times the number of ballistic missiles launched by his father Kim Jong-Il.

These tests could pose a threat to America and its allies in the region because they serve to hone North Korea’s missile capabilities. By testing their medium-to-long range ballistic missiles Pyongyang is seeking to test, and to warn, of their ability to target U.S. regional allies, particularly Japan, and South Korea.

In response to the test Seoul announced that it will install a THAAD missile defense system while Tokyo is planning to buy its own THAAD system or build a ground-based version of its Aegis anti-missile defense system.

North Korean continues its saber-rattling against the United States as well with a spokesperson saying the country is ready to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile “anytime and anywhere.”

So far U.S. strategy of dealing with North Korean provocations have been appeals to China to enforce the sanctions they placed on the country. The reasoning behind it was that North Korea is heavily dependent on Chinese imports so any sanctions Beijing placed on them would hurt Pyongyang to the point where they could not be able to sustain their missile program.

However, this approach does not seemed to have worked because the Chinese government has been lax in enforcing its sanctions, which has allowed their industries to continue their trading with North Korea.

Given the frequent circumvention of their own sanctions U.S. might have to look for a way to deal with Pyongyang without China. The case of Banco Delta Asia (BDA) shows America can successfully apply pressure to North Korea without Chinese help.

In 2005 the Treasury Department placed sanction on the BDA for laundering North Korean money, which in turn got other countries to cut ties with the bank. This started a snowball effect where the BDA and other banks who were laundering money for North Korea stopped doing business with Pyongyang out of the fear of losing their other clients.

Such an approach would also probably mean increasing U.S. troop presence in South Korea and helping Japan procure its own THAAD system or ground-based Aegis technology. This could reassure American allies in East Asia that the U.S. is ready to defend them and has not abandoned the region.

Shifting U.S. efforts from China to increasing military help for Japan and South Korea may also send a message to Pyongyang that the costs of shooting one of its missiles at the two countries will likely be prohibitive.

The THAAD anti-missile system has so far proven capable of shooting down ballistic missiles. Its test record suggests that it would likely be successful in shooting down North Korean missiles.

A similar system in Japan could extend the anti-missile protection to the country. With both states under a THAAD blanket North Korea may become discouraged and lessen its threats because it would not be sure if its missiles are effective anymore.

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