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What Really Happens with North Korea?

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on October 11th, 2006

The following comment, from Zhang Liangkui, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, is perhaps the most illuminating so far on North Korea’s nuclear test:

“It was a stupid policy for China to view North Korea’s nuclear weapon as potential leverage against the US. Instead, the nuclear weapon will be mainly aimed at China.”

This statement confirms two facts that, until now, have been widely discounted by analysts.

The first is that the number one hypothesized adversary for Pyongyang is not Japan, or South Korea, or even the United States—but rather, China.

The second is that in the more than a decade since the Korean nuclear program became an issue, Beijing has viewed it primarily as an opportunity to obtain leverage over Washington, by offering to resolve it in return for concessions from the United States, rather than as a threat to herself.

Zhang pulled no punches stating that the nuclear test “is the biggest diplomatic failure since the establishment of the People’s Republic [in 1949].”

To these two new bits of news can be added one that is more familiar. The American approach, based first on offers of aid in return for denuclearization, and then on reliance on China and on the Six Party Talks for which China served as organizer, has also failed.

In other words, Pyongyang has managed to bring the strategies of both Beijing and Washington crashing to the ground. No realistic military option exists or ever existed against North Korea, so Washington’s policy, reduced to fundamentals, was to expect, or perhaps rather hope, that China would fix Korea for us

This made the United States dependent upon Beijing for the realization of a policy goal—scarcely a strong position for a great power. Even communications with Pyongyang were often filtered through Beijing. Thus when Pyongyang called China to tell them the test was coming, China then called us. Pyongyang had no direct and secure channel to Washington.

China’s policy made scarcely made any more sense. This author had a long conversation with a top Beijing official who deals with Pyongyang and who has met Kim Jong Il on several occasions. He stressed to me how poor was American understanding of North Korea and how good was Chinese, but when I asked him the basic question: “so, does North Korea have nuclear weapons?” he replied:

“In my country there are two opinions about this. One is that they do. The other is that they do not.” I thanked him for his “very comprehensive answer”—to some muffled laughter by others around the table. That suggested to me that the administration in Beijing was not very serious about the whole issue.

Even so, opinion seems to be converging on the idea that now, even more than before, China must fix the North Korean problem, and that perhaps the actual explosion will serve as the proverbial “wake-up call” for Beijing about a situation with which one would think it has been intimately familiar for more than a decade. In other words, more of the policy approach that has failed repeatedly.

It is time for Washington to think strategically, about how we can reverse the current dynamic, which, even as it puts friends such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia in jeopardy, makes us ever more dependent on a China—that is not going to deliver a solution.

So what should we do? Here are my thoughts, somewhat elaborated since I first published them in Commentary in June 2005.

First, understand that North Korea will remain a nuclear power, no matter what anyone does. Military options do not exist, and “sanctions” are not going to overturn a cornerstone of that state’s security policy. Sadly, the chances are that this development will inexorably lead other states to become nuclear powers as well—South Korea, Japan, Australia, Turkey . . . it is a long and very hypothetical list.

Second, supply some context. Not North Korea, but China, is the most important destabilizer of Asian security. North Korea is smaller than Pennsylvania. China is as big as the United States. North Korea has a bulky, undeliverable bomb. China has miniaturized warheads. North Korea has no reliable delivery system. China is now bringing into service a generation of pretty much state of the art ballistic missiles. Furthermore China views America as an adversary: why else would she acquire missiles from Russia whose sole purpose is to sink US carriers? Or make coordinated internet attacks on US government computers? Or fire lasers at US reconnaissance satellites?

Furthermore, China is one of the current world hubs for nuclear proliferation. The Pakistani nuclear program is largely owed to Chinese assistance. Bomb designs written in Chinese have been found in the Middle East. One suspects that North Korea has also received some Chinese assistance.

For political reasons, the United States has chosen to say very little about Chinese proliferation, while chasing secondary players, like Dr. Khan in Pakistan and Pyongyang. We are tearing at a web, without identifying the spider.

Given all of this, most importantly the permanence of the North Korean nuclear capability, what are American interests?

China is developing a “string of pearls” as she calls it—a series of bases and allies ranging from North Korea in the East, to Myanmar and Pakistan in south Asia, to Iran—with which she has extensive secure land connections—in the Middle East.

The great Chinese strategist Sun Zi urges a state “to attack an adversary’s alliances.” China has been doing that rather effectively to us. We need to do it to them, by seeking to take apart the string of pearls. How?

First, send an ambassador to Pyongyang (and to Tehran and to all the other “pariah” states). Diplomatic recognition is not endorsement: it is simply the opening of a communications channel. Why should we communicate directly with North Korea only at special meetings, and otherwise rely on the Chinese and others as message carriers? That invites manipulation and deception of the United States.

Don’t misunderstand my suggestion. I oppose all financial aid to North Korea; I reject the whole concept of the various “agreed frameworks” and so forth. Pyongyang will pocket whatever we give her, but she will not give up her nuclear weapons. I also oppose the “special envoys” and missions that some are proposing.

What I want are some tough American Korea hands, fluent in literary Korean, standard Korean, and Korean cursing, to open an office in Pyongyang having a few extra chairs. If Mr Kim or his colleagues have something to say to us, they can come in and say it directly.

This will give Pyongyang the possibility of bypassing Beijing. This will worry Beijing, which will begin fretting about what the US, Pyongyang, and perhaps the South Koreans may be cooking up. That will give us leverage—and conceivably make Beijing more tractable.

Second, speak out clearly in favor of Korean unification. Korea was a unified state from 1392 until 1910. Her current division is completely unnatural. Unification will come only as Seoul and Pyongyang draw together—not a likely prospect at the moment, but one that may become more appealing if China begins to try to threaten Pyongyang.

In particular, both Koreas fear that if North Korea should begin to change and move away from China, or become destabilized, such developments will not lead to unification but rather to China’s dispatch of military forces, disguised as red cross relief groups, into North Korea, to secure the 38th parallel and prevent unification, while taking firm control of Pyongyang’s administration, placing it under effective Chinese suzerainty.

China has prepared the ground for this by her “historical” investigations showing that the ancient proto-Korean state of Goguryo, more or less coterminous with North Korea, was in fact “proto-Chinese.”

Third, strive to draw the Korean peninsula, whether unified or divided, nuclear or non-nuclear, away from Chinese patronage, into the larger world. A Korea having options would probably choose to balance herself between several poles—Russia, China, Japan,  the United States—rather than rely on one exclusively.

Fourth, make this approach clear to the South Korean government and endeavor to work with it. True, Seoul’s “sunshine policy” has just collapsed, and her president, instinctively anti-American, is now trying to figure out how to keep an American security guarantee while somehow not being an ally. That is his problem, and a problem for the voters of South Korea.

North Korea seeks to use her nuclear power, among other things, to divide the United States from Seoul. So nothing we do in Pyongyang should be at the expense of the Republic of Korea. Having an American office in Pyongyang will in fact most likely strengthen Seoul.

Washington comes out looking not only credulous, but also amazingly stupid, now that the dozen or so years that have passed since President Clinton declared a nuclear North Korea unacceptable have culminated in a North Korean nuclear weapon test.

It is time for Washington to rethink completely how we should deal with the Asian situation. One important piece of this will be to stop waiting for China to emerge as a “responsible stakeholder” that will cooperate with us in fixing things. That is not going to happen. We need our own policy, based above all on our own capabilities and our allies among the free countries of the region. That new policy should involve us in routine day to day contact with the government in Pyongyang.

After all,  if such regular contact and engagement is good for China, a very oppressive state, how can we argue that it is unacceptable for North Korea, which may be worse domestically,  though a pea in the same communist pod, while China is far more menacing internationally?

Arthur Waldron is the Lauder Professor of  International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, and vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

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