Il Geopolitical Diary della Stratfor:
The Non-Reactions to the North Korean Test
One of the rules of geopolitical analysis is that you should pay little attention to what people say and a great deal of attention to what they do. Applying that principle to the North Korean explosion (nuclear, fizzled or other) causes us to come to a singular conclusion: there is no great concern among the major powers about what happened. No one is doing anything on their own and no one can agree on what should be done together. If this is a crisis, no one is acting that way.
The United States and Japan, it is true, have imposed sanctions on North Korea. However, China and Russia aren’t going along with this, therefore the action is fairly meaningless. It’s like a balloon with two holes in it: it defeats the entire purpose. The United States, it should be added, can’t be surprised by the Russian and Chinese position. Moscow and Beijing have always been wary of following the U.S. sanctioning protocol with other countries, and they were always unlikely to follow the Americans on North Korea. Given that fact — and given that Washington knows it — U.S. and Japanese sanctions are more a gesture than an action.
If one listens to conventional analyses of the situation, North Korea poses a threat to the international community, and the key countries — the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — are searching for ways to achieve the common goal of a non-nuclear North Korea. This is the community-of-nations theory of international relations, also known as multilateralism. It makes an assumption of a common interest that really isn’t accurate. In fact, all of the key players have very different interests.
China, for example, sounds like a country that is quite upset that North Korea did something it didn’t want. It behaves as a country that is quite content with North Korea’s move, as it should be; the test flouts America’s will and the United States is unable to do anything about it. American impotence is of direct interest to China. The United States has maneuvered itself into a position of taking primary responsibility for dealing with North Korea’s threat. China, seeking a dominant position in Asia, welcomes anything that makes the United States appear incapable of carrying out this role. The weaker the United States appears, the greater the vacuum for China to step into. Beijing is going to make the appropriate sounds, but will also make certain that the United States looks as helpless as possible.
The Russians, too, are pleased to see North Korea’s challenge to the United States and America’s inability to respond; they are not going to bail Washington out. Russia sees itself as locked in a duel with the United States in the former Soviet Union. It holds the Americans responsible for the recent crisis in Georgia, as well as for a generally aggressive stance in Ukraine and Central Asia. The Russians are delighted to see the United States bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anything that adds to American pain can only help.
Now, one might say that both Moscow and Beijing should be concerned that the unstable government in Pyongyang might threaten them with nuclear weapons. In our view, neither China nor Russia sees Pyongyang as unstable, politically or mentally. They are not worried about North Korean nukes because (a) North Korea doesn’t really have nuclear weapons yet and (b) North Korea will be wiped from the face of the Earth by China or Russia should it strike at them and Pyongyang knows it. The risks are low and the benefits are high for both China and Russia. The appropriate expressions of concern will be uttered, but neither country will do anything.
Japan is concerned — but not to the point of taking any unilateral action, because it can’t. South Korea is far more worried about a conventional war than North Korean nukes, and does not want the government in Pyongyang to fall under any circumstances. The task of integrating a post-Communist North Korea with the South would cripple South Korea for decades. The South Koreans are not happy North Korea tested a nuke, but they are not about to do anything to destabilize the situation.
Multilateral approaches assume that there is a common interest in a solution and that the problem is working out the process to get there. There are indeed times when there is a common interest among nations, but they are rarer than times when interests diverge. In the case of North Korea, what we see is not a group of nations struggling to find a way to achieve a common goal. Rather, we see a group of nations pretending to have a common goal, and using that as a cover for pursuing very different ends. China and Russia view this as weakening the United States and they like it. South Korea does not want chaos to the North. Japan is waiting for someone else to take a risk. And the United States is out of options and allies.
The only good news for Washington is that it might discover that the test was not a nuclear test at all. That would relieve it of the burden of doing something, and therefore not make it look nearly as helpless as it now does. Indeed, discovering that there was no nuclear blast would solve a lot of problems; it would show that not doing anything was the result of prudence, and not of a lack of options.