The Mouse that Keeps Roaring: The United States, China and Solving the North Korean Challenge

Say what you will about North Korea. It’s “backwards,” impoverished, isolated, led by an enigmatic, secretive leader, or even that it is “the land of no smiles” whose people live a life on the edge of survival. To varying degrees, these negative descriptions are true. It’s hard to escape the stark reality that a nation of some 23 million people with reasonably rich mineral and agricultural resources produces less than one-tenth than the state of Pennsylvania – roughly the same size but with half the population. It’s also easy to understand why media attention is paid to North Korea. In a rapidly increasingly interconnected world and a 24/7 news cycle, Pyongyang has succeeded in keeping its 23 million people wholly isolated from outside information and access. Anachronisms like that make headlines.

North Korea’s statistics and characteristics would typically relegate it to impotent and forgotten failed state status. Instead, North Korea is on a very short list of the most pressing international security challenges. It captures the attention of global behemoths like China, fast-growing regional powers like South Korea, established economic powerhouses like Japan, and of course, the United States, the sole-remaining superpower. Why is this? And what can we do to solve the risks it presents?

There are several reasons North Korea has significance seemingly out of proportion to its size and economic strength. This article will consider three of them – its history, its nuclear capability, and its geopolitics. North Korea’s existence is a historical accident, but one that places it between two of the world's dominant political and economic systems. On one border is China, on the other is South Korea and by extension the United States. China’s main security concern with North Korea is keeping it from utter collapse; America’s dominant concern is the North’s nuclear program and the potential it has to proliferate. Both are legitimate concerns, and both must be resolved. The United States cannot accept a North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, nor can China tolerate its abrupt demise. Neither nation, however, has struck on a consistent and effective strategy to successfully address either threat; and neither has sufficiently partnered with the other to cooperate on a mutual solution.

Both countries have been thoroughly engaged with North Korea, but the nature of that engagement has been flawed. For China, its default has been to provide aid and political cover when most of the rest of the world is turning the screws in response to misbehavior. China ultimately provides enough food and other assistance to keep the regime in power and the state intact. But this has been essentially all it has done. The United States has also paid plenty of attention to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as it is called. But that attention has almost always been punitive: unilateral or UN-sponsored sanctions as a reaction to provocative actions taken by the North. Neither China’s propping up nor the United States’ beating down is sufficient to achieve the security aims each has with respect to Pyongyang. What is needed is for both China and the United States to maintain a blend of carrots and sticks to entice and persuade North Korea to move in the directions required to ensure a stable, economically viable state whose security concerns do not require it to keep its nuclear weapons. This means China must be more willing to support multilateral sanctions when warranted, and the U.S. must be more inclined to consider dialogue and bi-lateral initiatives with Pyongyang. Neither is easy, both face internal political constraints; nonetheless, it must happen to have the potential to silence the North Korean roar.

Read the full article in the latest issue of the Yale Journal for International Affairs.

Photo by Two Short Planks