North Korea is back in the headlines after a series of dangerous provocations. The regime has once again spurned the international community by carrying out a satellite launch widely believed to be a disguised intercontinental ballistic missile test. The launch came on the heels of the country’s fourth nuclear test and heightened cyber activity directed against South Korea. Congress has just passed additional sanctions and efforts are underway at the U.N. to impose meaningful sanctions on the already heavily sanctioned regime.
Despite the general consensus, few believe North Korea can be compelled to dismantle its ballistic and nuclear programs anytime soon. Instead, policymakers in Washington are scrambling for new ideas on how to deal with a regime that is ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, two myths continue to distort Korea-related policy discussions, thereby hampering the effort to curb North Korea’s ambitions.
Myth Number 1: North Korea Behaves Irrationally
North Korea confounds analysts. Ruled by the mercurial Kim Jong-un, the country seems to be trapped in a Stalinist twilight zone. It struggles to feed its population while spending most of its resources to attain nuclear and missile technology developed more than half a century ago. The regime has defied expectations of collapse, but it hasn’t overcome the deep economic crisis unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet Union either. Over the years North Korea has committed acts of terrorism, kidnapped Japanese and South Korean citizens, and is now attempting nuclear blackmail. Pyongyang is also relentless in hurling at times utterly bizarre imprecations at the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Unsurprisingly, DPRK’s highly provocative and risky behavior has led many to declare the country’s leaders to be unhinged.
While North Korean leadership politics are inscrutable and regime collapse is always a possibility, there is nothing that indicates Pyongyang acts irrationally on the international stage. To the contrary, the DPRK, with a GDP lower than Mozambique, has consistently punched above its weight. During the Cold War, Kim Il-sung deftly played off China against the Soviet Union to extract considerable economic and military assistance from both Moscow and Beijing for next-to-nothing in return. North Korean obdurate diplomacy once caused Gorbachev to proclaim in frustration that the tail was wagging the dog.
Even during the regime’s darkest days in the 1990s, when widespread famine killed hundreds of thousands of Koreans, North Korea continued to be a tough negotiator with the Clinton Administration and South Korea. The North Koreans wanted political normalization and broad economic assistance or at the very least financial compensation for halting their nuclear and missile programs. Concerned by the threat of proliferation—a fear that Pyongyang shrewdly played up— the United States reached a deal with the regime over its nuclear program and refrained from applying serious pressure at a time when the regime was particularly vulnerable.
Towards the end of the Clinton Administration, high level talks intensified and even a possible trip to Pyongyang by President Clinton was discussed. At that time, South Korea launched the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North. From the onset North Korea was in the driver’s seat; original goals of coupling investment opportunities with changes to North Korean economic policy were quietly dropped in favor of nonreciprocal assistance. Pyongyang was able to use the humanitarian and economic assistance as it saw fit.
North Korea also secretly continued its nuclear program, which contributed to the deterioration of relations under the Bush Administration. Despite a harsher tone, the Bush Administration still engaged North Korea in a similar manner of trying to offer incentives for North Korean compliance— albeit through the enlarged six-party talks format. While Pyongyang was forced to make intermittent concessions, North Korea successfully resisted efforts at disarmament.
At present, Kim Jong-un is likely pursuing several goals at once by continuing to expand the country’s nuclear and ballistic programs. Domestic prestige and shoring up his internal standing are the most obvious, but there is also reason to suspect North Korea is attempting to alter the geopolitical balance in Northeast Asia in the hope of extracting additional economic and military assistance from China. The DPRK leadership understands that the country has remained in a precarious international position since the end of the Cold War. Russia is at best ambivalent about North Korea, while China is concerned that Pyongyang’s bellicosity is paving the way for unwelcome additional U.S. involvement on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia. Making matters even more difficult for the North, China continues to woo South Korea in an effort to upgrade an already important economic partnership into something more. Feeling squeezed on multiple fronts, North Korea is hoping that nuclear tests and missile launches can ratchet up tensions between China and the United States. If that bilateral relationship were to deteriorate, North Korea’s strategic importance to Beijing would grow considerably.
So far the United States has responded to the latest events by proposing to deploy a sophisticated anti-missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. South Korea has been hesitant to publicly discuss additional missile defense deployments in order to avoid tensions with China. For their part, both China and Russia were quick to criticize the U.S. proposal. If the missile defense deployment goes through and ends up straining Sino-U.S. relations, North Korea will likely conclude that its strategy is bearing fruit.
Myth Number 2: China Is Willing to Get Tough on North Korea
Given that North Korea is such a problematic ally, there must conceivably be some point at which China would jettison its support. Such thinking was a lot more popular a few years ago, but there are still some who think China could be convinced to abandon the DPRK. Much of their faith rests on the fact that China has indicated on several occasions that there is considerable high-level frustration in Beijing with Pyongyang. Despite the friction, however, North Korea remains an important partner for China. Beijing is reluctant to punish North Korea because it fears the consequences of regime collapse. First, a sudden collapse of the DPRK could create a refugee crisis for China. Second, Beijing would view a unified Korea with a continued U.S. military presence as a major security threat along its northeastern flank. As a result, China sees maintaining the status quo—no matter the costs—as the least bad option.
China has balked at adopting sanctions that would really send a message such as denying North Korea access to airspace or closing port access to its vessels. It also continues to provide strategic resources such as crude oil, even if official customs records show oil deliveries have ceased. North Korea’s oil refineries are believed to be too crude to satisfy military demand, and the country likely imports rocket fuel from China as well. The latter suggests that China could compel North Korea to shutter its missile program if it wanted. Moreover, even though high-level contacts were frozen after the surprise 2013 nuclear test, Beijing recently sent Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan to attend the seventieth anniversary of the Korean Workers Party parade and celebrations. While Liu was in Pyongyang, an effusive congratulatory statement from President Xi Jinping was broadcast on CCTV.
The biggest shortcoming in China’s policy toward North Korea is the implicit assumption that Pyongyang is also interested in the status quo. As I mentioned, there is strong reason to suspect that North Korea is actually striving towards disrupting the current balance of power in the region. This means there is a significant risk that the region will descend into an arms race. The United States, bound by security guarantees to both South Korea and Japan, would be obligated to respond vigorously to any sort of gauntlet thrown by the North—the kind of outcome Beijing is most loath to see. By failing to apply adequate pressure on Pyongyang, China risks being taken hostage by North Korea’s adventurism.
U.S. and Chinese core interests diverge in North Korea, but neither side is interested in seeing heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula spiller over into the wider region. To avoid those risks, North Korea must incur costs for its destabilizing behavior. As those who have met with DPRK officials are fond of saying, “North Korea does not respond well to pressure, but without pressure they do not respond at all.”