State Dept: We've confirmed use of VX to assassinate Kim brother

Breaking news from March 2017, or something more significant? If this State Department declaration seems pro forma this long after Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, its consequences will likely be mainly symbolic, as NBC News notes — and may not even reach that level. Rex Tillerson made the call, but this is merely a sideshow on the North Korea desk at this point:

The U.S. has determined that Pyongyang used the chemical warfare agent VX to assassinate the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and has imposed sanctions in response, the State Department said Tuesday.

The prohibitions appeared largely symbolic, such as sales to North Korea under the Arms Export Control Act and barring the export of national security-sensitive goods and technology to the country, which has no relations with the United States.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson determined North Korea had “used chemical weapons in violation of international law or lethal chemical weapons against its own nationals,” the department said.

Why now? Malaysian police identified the substance more than a year ago — and at the time, Malaysia was one of the few countries still doing business with North Korea. The accusation went largely unanswered, and perhaps tacitly acknowledged when Pyongyang took hostages in their demands for the return of Kim Jong-nam’s body.

In other words, this determination took an oddly long time, and it also picked an odd time to arrive. North Korea has suddenly begun signaling that they’re willing to discuss denuclearization in exchange for security guarantees. Having this pop up now might be a way to just clear the diplomatic decks, especially given that the sanctions that result are entirely symbolic, but it can also be seen as unnecessarily provocative — again because the consequences are so insignificant.

On the other hand, David von Drehle argues that the incentives for talks mostly line up in Kim’s favor now, and the US may not have any options but to engage:

First, North Korea’s nukes are an accomplished reality, no longer a possibility to be averted. As appalling as it is to acknowledge this, Kim’s negotiating position is much stronger now. He can aim for a lasting settlement rather than temporary breathing room.

Second, Kim has in neighboring China a model for his own future. His family has always believed that modernization threatens their grip on power, so they sealed it out, making theirs a Hermit Kingdom. But Xi Jinping, the Chinese premier, is attempting to prove that economic liberalization can coexist with political dictatorship. Kim may conclude that he can maintain power without utterly isolating his country.

Third, Kim has on the horizon a prospect for greater security than ever before. It looks like this: Vladimir Putin is champing at the bit to build a natural gas pipeline through North Korea to supply the energy-hungry dynamo to the south. America’s fracking revolution has put tremendous pressure on Russia’s state-owned Gazprom to find new customers for piped gas, which is cheaper than U.S. gas that must be liquefied for oceanic shipping. South Korea is an especially tantalizing market.

Putin was sidetracked by Kim’s decision to weaponize his nuclear capability, and the international sanctions that followed. But if talks with the United States clear away the most severe restrictions, Putin’s pipeline project will surely be resurrected. And if completed, the pipeline will constitute a major strategic Russian asset running right through the middle of North Korea — enough insurance against a U.S. attack that Kim could afford to mothball his own nukes to shelter under the Russian umbrella.

Eh, maaaybe. Pyongyang sheltered under China’s nuclear umbrella for decades as it is. It owes its existence to the intervention by Mao in the Korean War, which pushed UN forces led by the US back to the 38th Parallel. The US has not conducted a “pre-emptive war” on North Korea because it would have meant war with China, which would have been bad enough, but the proximity to Russia made their participation in a conflict at least a significant possibility too.

North Korea never really needed nukes to protect against an American invasion. They needed the threat of a US invasion to keep their totalitarian grip on the country, and they needed the nukes to demonstrate their superiority to the US, at least in their own propaganda, while leveraging the nukes to gain a better settlement of the Korean War in the end. As von Drehlen notes, that strategy may eventually pay off.

If it does, though, so what? A North Korea with a verifiable denuclearized status represents a much smaller threat to the US, which is a win for us regardless of what it does for the Kims. Kim Jong-un may be looking to Xi Jinping’s example, but he doesn’t have China’s workforce or resources, either. A little bit of liberalization will go a long way to undermining the deathgrip the Kims have on their country. If that’s Kim’s plan, it’s a big gamble that seems much less likely to pay off than their nuclear gambit has. This could turn out to be a win-win in the long run, assuming we get a verification apparatus that sticks.