In early November 2014, North Korea exhibited a hint of good-will by releasing two American prisoners, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. This was an enigmatic gesture, but it lit a glimmer of hope that North Korea would finally come back to the negotiation table.
That hope however, was quickly overshadowed by the controversy of the satire comedy film “The Interview” and the ensuing cyber-attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment.
On January 2nd, President Obama issued an Executive Order to place additional sanctions on North Korea for its provocative and repressive actions. On January 8th, only three days into a new Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced H.R. 204, also known as “The North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Non-Recognition Act of 2015.”
While President Obama’s executive order came with plenty of warning, the introduction of H.R. 204 was a clear indicator of the foreign policy focus for the 114th Congress. The focus on North Korea was even further reinforced when the House Foreign Affairs Committee held its very first committee hearing of the 114th Congress on the issue of North Korea.
The bill itself continues the diplomatic non-recognition of North Korea, which some may argue is redundant given the fact that the United States has not had diplomatic relations with North Korea since its establishment in 1948. However, the significance of the bill lies in its attempt to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Today, the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism only consists of four countries: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. North Korea was added to the list in 1988 for its involvement in the Rangoon and Korean Air Flight 858 bombings and following reports that it sold weapons to terrorists. However, in June of 2008, President George W. Bush announced he would remove North Korea from the list after meeting all nuclear inspection requirements.
Technically, relisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism is within the discretion of the US Department of State. However, Congress does have the power to enact the same sanctions against North Korea as if it were on the list, and that is exactly what H.R. 204 does.
The economic ramifications of this are negligible given the non-existent trade between the United States and North Korea. When President Obama warned of a “proportional” response to North Korea’s cyber-attack, many analysts believed relisting North Korea would be one option. Instead, the administration opted for targeted sanctions. But if the administration decides to capitulate to congress’s urging, relisting North Korea could have serious consequences.
For one, relisting North Korea to the list of state sponsored terrorists in addition to the upcoming US-South Korea joint military exercises traditionally held in March every year could prove to be the perfect concoction for another North Korea provocation in the form of a nuclear test. It has been quite some time since North Korea’s last nuclear test two years ago in February of 2013.
If history is any indicator, the Korean stock market seems to have become immune to North Korean tensions. The KOSPI remained resilient through several of North Korean provocations between 2006 and 2013, closing only 1-2% under the opening price on the day of any given provocation.
Regardless, further provocation of North Korea could result in a significant geo-political shift in the region. North Korea’s relations with their Chinese neighbor has soured in recent years.
It is believed that Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Seong Thaek had the closest ties to Beijing, but ever since his purge and execution, Kim has failed to establish the kinship with Beijing that his father previously enjoyed. The souring of relations was further demonstrated when President Xi Jinping invited South Korean President Park Geun-Hye to a state visit before North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
With North Korea in the market for new allies, it looks as though Russia is the likely favorite to become North Korea’s “new best friend.” In fact, North Korea’s recent attack on Sony seems to have come right out of Russia’s playbook, as it closely resembles the cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007 traced back to groups in Moscow. Of course, just as North Korea denied the allegations, so did Russian officials at the time.
As North Korea attempted to censor a movie through the threat of cyber-attacks, Russia tried to blackmail Estonia into preserving a Soviet Union war monument. Given the similar tactics used by the two states, it is no surprise that Vladimir Putin officially invited the North Korean leader to visit Russia this upcoming May.
This new duo would be ideal for both sides as North Korea attempts to counterbalance the waning relationship and over-reliance on China and as Russia attempts to gain a stronger foothold in Asia. Russia has already set the wheels in motion by agreeing to write off 90% of North Korea’s debt and reinvest $1 billion into a Trans-Siberian railway and gas pipeline through North Korea.
The arrangement between North Korea and Russia would be far more threatening to both American and Western European security interests than the traditional duo of China and North Korea. With China, the United States was able to (to a certain extent) leverage its close economic ties to condemn North Korea.
However, this is not the case with Russia. Close ties to Russia could undermine the US effort to isolate Pyongyang for its development of nuclear weapons and enhance Russia’s bargaining power over the United States and Japan.
Relisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and sanctioning Pyongyang even further can accelerate the process of kinship that Russia and North Korea are attempting to establish. This will ultimately lead to a new set of escalated and uncharted tensions in East Asia.