Tag: North Korea

Getting China to Become Tough with North Korea

It is no secret that the United States wants China to take a firmer stance toward its troublesome North Korean ally.  That was true even before the North’s satellite launch/long-range ballistic missile test.  And Chinese officials may be receptive to the argument that steps need to be taken to rein-in Kim Jong-un’s regime, even at the risk of destabilizing his government.  But as I point out in a China-U.S. Focus article getting Beijing to accept the risks entailed in becoming more assertive toward Pyongyang will require some major changes in U.S. policy.

At a minimum, Washington will have to respond favorably to China’s long-standing demand that the United States be willing to engage North Korea in wide ranging negotiations to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  Chinese officials are increasingly uneasy about Pyongyang’s behavior, especially the regime’s continued defiance of China’s warnings not to conduct more nuclear weapons or ballistic missile tests.  But Chinese policymakers also still cling to the belief that much of North Korea’s belligerence and recalcitrance is the result of the U.S.-led campaign to isolate the country.  Only by offering a comprehensive settlement to Pyongyang to finally end the state of war on the Peninsula, lift most economic sanctions, and establish diplomatic relations, will Washington convince Beijing that it truly seeks to an equitable outcome.

If the United States makes such a generous offer and Pyongyang rejects it, an already uneasy China will be even more impatient with its North Korean ally.  And China is the one country that can inflict real pain on Kim Jong-un’s regime.  Beijing supplies North Korea with a sizable portion (by some estimates more than half) of its food and energy supplies.  If China severed that link, North Korea would soon face an economic and social crisis.  Beijing has been reluctant to take that risky step for two reasons, however.  First, it could well trigger chaos in North Korea, perhaps bringing down Kim’s regime and leading to massive refugee flows out of North Korea into China.  That is no small concern, but in addition to that headache, Chinese officials worry that the United would seek to exploit such a situation to its geopolitical advantage.

For all of its annoying behavior, North Korea is an important buffer state to China, separating the Chinese homeland from the U.S.-led alliance system in East Asia.  Destabilizing North Korea carries the inherent risk that China might then confront a united Korea on its border—a united Korea in a military alliance with the United States.  Even worse from China’s standpoint, it might have to deal with the presence of U.S. air and naval bases in what is now North Korea.  The buffer would be gone.

Even verbal assurances that the United States has no plans for such bases would provide scant comfort.  Chinese leaders are fully aware that U.S. officials promised their Russian counterparts when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe evaporated that NATO would not expand eastward.  Today, all of those nations are members of the U.S-led NATO, including several directly on the border of the Russian Federation itself.  Moreover, the United States is building up its forces in the eastern members of the alliance.

Chinese leaders are determined that nothing comparable will take place in Northeast Asia.  They will want something more tangible than an easily forgotten paper promise.  Fortunately, the United States can offer that more tangible guarantee.  Washington’s military alliance with South Korea is a Cold War dinosaur.  It was formed at a time when South Korea was poor, weak and war-ravaged.  Worse, that weak South Korea faced a heavily armed North Korea fully backed by both Moscow and Beijing.  South Korea could not have survived without U.S. protection and massive U.S. aid.

Washington Must Start Persuading Beijing about North Korea

Secretary John Kerry went to Beijing to again lecture his hosts about the need for China to pressure North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program. As expected, his mission failed. The Xi government again proved unwilling to threaten the survival of the Kim dynasty.

Immediately after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test Kerry attacked Beijing’s policy: it “has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual.” Even before Kerry arrived the PRC made clear it disagreed. “The origin and crux of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula has never been China,” said a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman: “The key to solving the problem is not China.”

While he was in Beijing she cited the behavior of other parties as “one major reason why the denuclearization process on the peninsula has run into difficulties.” Beijing officialdom has shown plenty of irritation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but China has demonstrated it has yet to be convinced to destroy its own ally and strengthen America’s position in Northeast Asia.

Kerry made the best of an embarrassing situation when he announced that the two sides agreed to an “accelerated effort” by the UN Security Council to approve a “strong resolution that introduces significant new measures” against the DPRK. No one should hold their breath as to the nature of those “measures,” however.

North Koreans Should Have Attended Davos

Admittedly, North Korean diplomats would have cut a curious figure in Davos, attending the just-ended World Economic Forum. Representatives of one of the few regimes which still professes to be communist might have had to close their eyes amidst the capitalist excess highlighting the conference.

Still, the North Koreans would have seen much new. And there was the potential of what the Wall Street Journal termed “awkward encounters,” which might have allowed some informal diplomatic discussions on the side.

Alas, while the DPRK was invited to attend the forum, WEF rescinded the offer after the North’s latest nuclear test.

North Korea may be the most isolated state on the planet. Much of that is by choice. Nevertheless, Washington and its allies have made isolation their tool of choice in dealing with the North.

Of course, frustration with Pyongyang is understandable. Yet the policy has utterly failed. The DPRK has enshrined a unique form of monarchical communism, created an extraordinarily brutal system of domestic repression, maintained a large conventional military poised within reach of Seoul, and developed a growing nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father in December 2011, has not liberalized politically. Moreover, he has continued the North’s missile and nuclear research.

Yet the DPRK is loosening economic controls. While much more needs to be done, Pyongyang’s commitment to reform appears real.

Kim has promised higher living standards alongside nuclear weapons. The more the regime could be tempted to sample heretofore forbidden economic fruits, the better. Just taste the apple from the tree of capitalism, Jong-un.

Which is where the WEF could have come in. Late last year the WEF invited the North for the first time since 1998, “in view of positive signs coming out of the country.” After Pyongyang’s January 6 nuclear test, however, the invitation was revoked since “under these circumstances there would be no opportunity for international dialogue.”

Actually, after the latest nuclear test was precisely the time when international dialogue was most required. War would be a foolish response and sanctions have been applied without result. China is angry with its frenemy but unwilling to risk the regime’s collapse. So if not negotiation, then what?

Persuading China to Cooperate against North Korea

Another North Korean nuclear test, another round of demands that China bring Pyongyang to heel. Said Secretary of State John Kerry: Beijing’s policy “has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual.” Alas, his approach will encourage the PRC to dismiss Washington’s wishes.

The People’s Republic of China joined Washington in criticizing the latest blast. The PRC is the most important investor in and provides substantial energy and food assistance to the North. Beijing also has protected the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by weakening past UN sanctions and enforcing those imposed with less than due diligence. If only China would get tough, runs the argument, the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang would have to give way.

Alas, Chinese intervention is not the panacea many appear to believe. Contra common belief in Washington, the U.S. cannot dictate to the PRC. Threats are only likely to make the Chinese leadership more recalcitrant.

In fact, Beijing’s reluctance to wreck the North Korean state is understandable. If the administration wants to enlist China’s aid, it must convince Beijing that acting is in China’s, not America’s, best interest.

While unpredictable, obstinate, and irritating, so far the DPRK is not a major problem for China. The North disrupts American regional dominance and forces Seoul and Washington to beg for assistance in dealing with the DPRK. Even Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal poses no obvious threat to China.

Why, then, should the PRC sacrifice its political influence and economic interests? A Chinese cut-off of energy and food would cause great hardship in the North. But a half million or more people died of starvation during the late 1990s without any change in DPRK policy.

Thus, the DPRK leadership may refuse to bend. The result might be a return to the 1990s, with a horrific collapse in living conditions but regime survival—and continued development of nuclear weapons.

Reduce Expectations and Withdraw Troops in Dealing with North Korea

Kim Jong-un’s gift to the world is North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Washington should respond by backing away from a potential conflict that is not its own.

Although Western intelligence widely disbelieves the DPRK’s claim to have tested a thermonuclear device, or H-bomb, Kim Jong-un has clearly demonstrated that nothing will dissuade the regime from expanding and improving its nuclear arsenal.

The North’s action has led to widespread demands for action. Alas, no one has good ideas about what to do.

Pyongyang again ignored “the international community” because “the international community” has no cost-effective means to restrain the DPRK. Although as assistant secretary of defense Ashton Carter advocated military strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities, most people on and off the Korean peninsula don’t believe the answer to a potential war is to start an almost certain war.

Sanctions long have been the West’s go-to answer. Congress already was considering three different enhanced sanctions bills and the UN Security Council is planning new economic penalties.

But the North has never let public hardship get in the way of its political objectives. So far the People’s Republic of China has refused to encourage regime collapse by cutting economic ties and eliminating energy and food support. Moreover, Russia, with a newly revived relationship with the DPRK, insisted that any response be “appropriate” and “proportionate.”

Whether there ever was a chance to negotiate away the North’s nascent nuclear program may be impossible to know. But virtually no one believes the Kim regime is willing to eliminate existing weapons developed at high cost.

So what to do?

  1. Recognize that not every problem is America’s problem. North Korea matters a lot more to its neighbors than to the U.S. Indeed, Pyongyang wouldn’t be constantly tossing imprecations and threats toward Washington, if the U.S. didn’t have troops on its border and abundant air and naval forces pointed the DPRK’s way.
  2. Withdraw American conventional forces from the peninsula. The Republic of Korea, with twice the population and upwards of 40 times the economic strength, of the North, is well able to provide for its own defense. U.S. troops act as nuclear hostages, unnecessarily put in harm’s way without constraining North Korean nuclear activities.
  3. Seek to persuade Beijing to pressure the North out of the former’s own interest. Washington’s only chance of enlisting China’s help is by addressing its concerns—impact of potentially violent implosion spurring conflict and refugees across the Yalu, loss of economically advantageous position in the North, creation of united Korea allied with America aiding Washington efforts at containment. This requires negotiating with the PRC.
  4. Offer to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. Engagement might not change anything, but then, we can be certain that nothing will change if we maintain the same policy toward the North.
  5. Indicate that continuing expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal would force Washington to reconsider its position on proliferation. After all, the U.S. does not want to be left extending a nuclear umbrella over South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and who knows else against nuclear-armed North Korea, China, and Russia. Better to extricate America from such a miasma and allow its allies to create their own nuclear deterrents. If that prospect bothers the PRC, then it should do more to prevent the DPRK from continuing its present course.

North Korea has become a seemingly insoluble problem for Washington. Nothing the U.S. can do, at least at reasonable cost, is likely to create a democratic, friendly, non-nuclear DPRK.

But as I point out on National Interest: “Washington can share the nightmare, turning South Korea’s defense over to Seoul and nuclear proliferation over to the North’s neighbors, particularly China. Moreover, Washington can diminish North Korean fear and hostility by establishing diplomatic ties, just as America had official relations with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies during the Cold War.”

The geopolitics still would be messy. But no longer would it be America’s responsibility to clean up.

North Korea’s Nuclear Challenge to the West and China

North Korea has grabbed international headlines. Again. Pyongyang staged its 4th nuclear test, supposedly a thermonuclear device.

Proposals for more sanctions and further isolation likely will grow. However, the test dramatically demonstrated that the U.S. attempt to build a cordon sanitaire around the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has failed.

Washington instead should develop a new policy focused on engagement, not denuclearization. The latter should remain an objective, but even if it remains out of reach the U.S. might be able to reduce military threats on the peninsula.

As always, North Korean foreign policy reflects domestic politics. The test also gives Pyongyang greater leverage in its attempt to engage both South Korea and the U.S.

Talks with the Republic of Korea recently ended without result. The North also long has sought to draw the U.S. into bilateral discussions. However, the Obama administration set as a precondition for any talks that Pyongyang take steps toward dismantling its nuclear program, a non-starter.

In dealing with the North there are only second-best options which might ameliorate the threat otherwise posed by a famously enigmatic, persistently paranoid, and potentially unstable nuclear-armed state viewing itself in a perpetual state of war with America and its allies, South Korea and Japan.

Did Top North Korean Official Die by Accident or Assassination?

Yet another top North Korean official has met a violent and untimely death. No one knows if it was a tragic accident or political assassination.

Kim Yang-gon was in charge of negotiations with South, where he was respected. He supposedly died in an early morning car accident. A surprising number of North Korea’s high officials appear to leave the world this way; yet defectors say accidents are common given the poor streets and tendency of top officials to drive drunk.

Still, it looks suspicious. But it doesn’t appear to be a state-sanctioned hit. Dictator Kim Jong-un praised his “close comrade-at-arms” and showed emotion at the state funeral. 

Perhaps a rival took out Kim Yang-gon. However, while he was well-connected, having served “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il too, it’s not apparent that he is the sort of rival worth killing.

Which leaves everyone outside again looking through the mirror darkly, as the Bible puts it.

The Korean status quo obviously is unsatisfactory. Indeed, it is positively dangerous. While everyone discounts North Korea’s endless threats against both South Korea and the U.S., as the North’s military capabilities grow people are more likely to treat them as warnings to be taken seriously. Proposals for military action against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might enjoy a revival.

Of course, the more dangerous Pyongyang perceives the international environment, the more committed it likely will become to building a sizeable nuclear arsenal and missile force. And to the extent that the North can argue that it is responding defensively to America, the less likely Beijing will be to apply more pressure on the DPRK.

An intrepid few have forthrightly proposed military action. But that would be a wild gamble, risking thousands of lives, mostly Korean, on both sides.

Enhanced sanctions look pretty good compared to war. And tighter financial controls would make it much harder for the Kim regime to do business with the world. However, Sudan gets by despite strict financial controls.

Moreover, without Beijing’s acquiescence, the U.S. won’t be able to cut the North’s lifeline. Forcing a national implosion would have unpredictable and potentially violent consequences.

For some the People’s Republic of China is the preferred option. Just get the PRC to force the North into line. That presumes Beijing has the ability to do so.

Moreover, the PRC has good reason to choose the status quo over creating the possibility of chaos and war on China’s southern border. Moreover, Beijing is unlikely to do any favors for the U.S., which would use a united Korea as part of a containment strategy against China.

If none of these, then what?

Some form of engagement with the objectives of moderating regime behavior, easing the threat environment, constraining arms development, encouraging domestic reform, and improving human development. Not because the chances of success seem great, but because there is no better option.

That means the South should continue talks despite Kim Yang-gon’s death. In fact, in his New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-un expressed his desire to improve bilateral relations.

And as I argue on National Interest online: “the U.S. should open a dialogue, with the objective of initiating official though low-key relations. A diplomatic presence in Pyongyang would provide a small keyhole for peering into this mysterious country. Although expectations should be low, tempering hostilities could lead to additional benefits, especially if Kim Jong-un uses next year’s party congress to modernize.”

Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union that it was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That certainly describes the DPRK for the West. Kim Yang-gon’s death only makes the puzzle more complex. Increasing contact with Pyongyang is the best way to begin to understand the North and influence its future.

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