In response to tightened UN sanctions, North Korea has fired short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. East Asian expert Rüdiger Frank tells DW how the latest restrictions could impact Pyongyang.
DW: North Korea has responded to the new UN sanctions by firing short-range missiles. What do you make of this move by Pyongyang?
Rüdiger Frank: North Korea's move in response to the new round of sanctions imposed by the UN is not entirely surprising, as it had been clear for some time that the Security Council would adopt a resolution tightening restrictions on North Korea. And many expected Pyongyang to respond to it, as well as to the joint military exercises the US and South Korea will hold next week.
What does Pyongyang intend to achieve with this show of defiance?
I assume that the North wants to show the international community its displeasure about the latest set of sanctions, as the measures restrict the rights entitled to it as a sovereign state. That's why it resorted to its standard response of conducting short-range missile tests.
You have mentioned the US-South Korean joint military exercises that are set to begin next Monday. This year's exercises are expected to be the largest military drills ever held on the Korean Peninsula. What impact are they going to have on regional ties?
In my opinion, these drills will have the effect of adding fuel to the fire. I cannot view it any differently. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are already running high. There is now this new set of sanctions, and in retaliation many say North Korea may be tempted to conduct another nuclear test, if it is technically in a position to conduct one. In this context, these joint military exercises are certainly not helpful.
Frank: 'I am not sure whether the new restrictions will have any impact on the nation's nuclear and missile programs'
The last major crisis on the Korean Peninsula occurred in 2013 when the North conducted its third nuclear test. Comparatively, how volatile is the situation now?
The current situation is similarly volatile. The main difference is that Kim Jong Un has now been in power for three years, unlike in 2013 when he was new to power. We know a little bit more about him now.
North Korea is also facing increased pressure this time around as the Chinese have now, at least formally, approved the new sanctions. We will have to wait and see to what extent tensions will rise in the region, and hope that they will not lead to a military confrontation.
The latest sanctions mandate drastic restrictions on the North's exports. What impact will they have on the country?
I find it particularly interesting that China has ensured that there is a ban on North Korean exports of products such as rare earths where they both compete. That allows China to economically benefit and continue its tight, monopolistic grip on this market.
The latest measures impact not just North Korea's exports, but also imports. The country's entire external trade is therefore affected, and part of it is barred. While the restrictions affect all those who are reliant on foreign trade, I am not sure whether they will have any impact on the nation's nuclear and missile programs. That is because as far as I know, North Korea doesn't import any parts used in these programs.
The new restrictions will result in a deterioration of the already tough economic situation in the country. And in authoritarian states like North Korea, the brunt is mostly borne by weaker sections of society. That this would in turn lead to a popular backlash and oust the regime seems to be the hope of those who had pushed through these sanctions. It is, however, something that has so far seemed unlikely to happen in North Korea.
What in your view has to happen for the situation in the Korean Peninsula to calm down?
In my view, North Korea has to be accepted the way it is - even if we don't like it. However, I believe no one, especially Washington and Seoul, is ready to do it. The US and South Korea have their own ideas of how North Korea should be, and they try to bring about this change through various measures. But this approach has so far proven to be very difficult. And to assume that North Korea by itself will dismantle its nuclear weapons and get rid of its leader is quite unrealistic.
That means things are likely to continue as before, albeit with a hope that North Korea would eventually follow the example of Eastern Europe and virtually implodes on its own. But we have been waiting for that to happen for 25 years now.
Rüdiger Frank is Professor for East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna. He works also as adjunct professor at Korea University as well as at the University of North Korean Studies (Kyungnam University) in Seoul.