Is North Korea aiming to capitalize on Mideast instability?

North Korea has established a predicable track record of using brinkmanship as part of a strategy to coerce its neighbors

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Amid increasing tensions in the Middle East - with potential consequences for the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen - North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear bomb on Wednesday. The test predictably drew swift condemnation from the U.N. Security Council, South Korea and Japan. U.S. Republication presidential contenders attributed it to President Barack Obama’s “failed” foreign policy.

Since its inception in 1948, North Korea has established a predicable track record of using brinkmanship as part of a strategy to coerce its neighbors and the international community to provide aid and economic concessions to support the Stalinist regime. If confirmed, the latest nuclear test will be its fourth since 2006.

The timing of Pyongyang’s latest provocation coincides with the unfolding U.S. presidential election, in which Obama’s foreign policy record is being closely scrutinized. It also signals to Washington that North Korea will take advantage of an increasingly unstable global environment.

Amid these developments, China seeks to establish itself as the predominant regional power by illegally attempting to extend its maritime territorial claims deep into the South China Sea, including by violating the territorial waters of Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

As the United States and its principal regional allies Japan, South Korea and Taiwan seek to protect freedom of navigation throughout the Pacific region, North Korea has over the past decades enjoyed robust support from Beijing as it fears a unified - and pro-American - Korean peninsula along its northeastern border.

Within this context, North Korea has established a space that allows it to advance its principal foreign policy objective, namely to ratchet up regional tensions through brinkmanship in order to extort the necessary financial concessions from its neighbors and the international community for regime survival.

Global U.S. leadership

Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the guarantor of the international system, which has translated into a largely peaceful global environment - and with it, unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. With the inevitable rise of China, coupled with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demonstrated commitment to roll back global U.S. leadership wherever possible, the global order as we know it is facing unprecedented challenges.

These challenges have translated into fierce criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, as U.S. Republicans have long been critical of the White House’s relatively “soft touch” approach to the Middle East, especially on Syria.

However, with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a threat to Iraq during the summer of 2014, followed by Russia’s decision to annex Crimea and its subsequent role in Syria, a growing sentiment is emerging among Americans that the Obama administration’s foreign policy is fundamentally adrift.

While Obama’s decision not to enforce his own “red lines” in Syria should be considered a major foreign policy failure, which helped create a space for ISIS and a vacuum that Russia eagerly filled, he has correctly understood that lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the difficulties Washington faces when it comes to nation-building.

His decision to push back against fresh calls to double down against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is also understandable as Washington faces a prolonged war against a host of extremist organizations operating in large parts of Africa and throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Amid these challenges, it is unsurprising that the North Korean nuclear test adds anxiety to an already-worried American populace about what appears to be the breakdown of the U.S.-led global order, which has translated into the proliferation of conflicts around the world.

Yet a sober look at the latest North Korean provocation suggests that the solution to containing the Stalinist regime lies in continued regional cooperation with Beijing and Moscow while boosting security cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo.

Pyongyang’s provocative behavior is nothing but an attempt to take advantage of Middle East instability for its own cynical purposes.

U.S. military power

Withstanding all these challenges, the United States remains the globe’s strongest military power, with a robust economy that is second to none. It has arguably never been stronger and its people wealthier. Within this context, North Korea’s latest nuclear test should be considered a side show rather than a sign of the demise of the U.S-led global order.

It is fundamentally American to question its leaders, especially a two-term president. While Obama is taking much heat for the world’s problems as Republicans aiming to succeed him promise a better tomorrow, he used similar rhetoric during his own campaign for the White House.

At this point in time, the United States needs a fresh perspective in the White House, and a leader who is not afraid of making tough decisions, but yet understands that governing is not about politicizing the national discourse, but about finding practical solutions. American leadership is arguably needed now more than ever.


Sigurd Neubauer is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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