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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (July 7, 2006)

United Front Against North Korea: China is the Key

Chadwick I. Smith (Consultant based in Japan)

North Korea is once again in the news, but after weeks of speculation regarding missile tests, the recent launch of the notorious missile Taepodong-2 was somewhat anti-climatic as it lasted only 42 seconds. However, North Korea went further and tested a variety of Nodong and Scud missiles. As C. Kenneth Quinones correctly pointed out in an article on June 27, a missile test would be largely disadvantageous for Pyongyang, so why then was it carried out?

In the past few months the US has focused on the growing threat of Iran, which presents a greater danger due to its strategic location in the Middle East. This is with good reason, for a nuclear-armed Iran could exert its influence over the fledgling states of Iraq and Afghanistan and it would have the potential to stifle Washington's influence and destabilize the power relationship with Israel. Meanwhile, North Korea with its larger and more developed weapons program most likely felt that it should represent a greater concern to the US because of its proximity to Japan. Therefore Pyongyang acted in a seemingly "irrational" manner similar to what it has done in the past in an attempt to generate fear that will hopefully destabilize the relationships among its neighbors.

Pyongyang's preferred reaction to the missile tests from the international community and especially the US would be of shock and disbelief. Hopefully this would then cause states to rush to Pyongyang with offers of foreign aid and assistance in an attempt to persuade North Korea to abandon further missile tests. This would not be advisable, as it has not worked in the past and even South Korea is now currently reviewing its engagement policy towards North Korea following the recent tests. Furthermore, completely isolating Pyongyang is unlikely to work either; North Korea's isolation is an impetus for the further development of its weapons program. It allows it to claim victim status and that it has no choice but to continue on its present course of development, evinced by the threat of more tests.

The Bush administration stated that the launch was a "provocation" but not considered a "threat" which is true since most analysts agree that the test resulted in a failure. Further statements by President Bush that this action will further isolate Pyongyang are also true as it has alienated its neighbors and exposed China's reluctance to exert any real pressure by ignoring its advice. If a truly concerted global effort could be marshaled to deal with the weapons program and Pyongyang actually feared being isolated, this would work. However, North Korea craves its isolation, as it is the key to validate its weapons program. In addition, although China may feel slighted, it is well aware that it must deal with North Korea very carefully in order to protect its own interests.

Beijing may be angered by Pyongyang's action; however, it has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula. It may temporarily cut off oil supplies as it has done in the past or issue a stern warning but it will not take a hard stance, as a North Korean collapse and subsequent refugee exodus would be a severe strain on the growing Chinese economy. This contradiction between what is said and what is done allows Pyongyang to skillfully play China against the US and vice versa.

Japan was quick to act; it led the push for a UN resolution and halted further Mangyongbong visits for a period of six months. Japan should be commended for this rapid response; however, China and Russia do not support punitive measures for Pyongyang and this is once again polarizing the members of the six party talks. The exposure of these divisions is exactly what Pyongyang hoped to achieve by conducting a missile test.

Assistant Secretary Hill arrived in Beijing on July 7 to persuade China to take a stronger stance, but it is unlikely that his negotiations will be successful, as China cannot and will not isolate Pyongyang as it wishes to be perceived as the neutral broker. Without a truly united effort, the six-party talks will continue to accomplish nothing. Nothing short of bold action from China is what is needed to lead this effort.

Presently, North Korea does not fear punishment and it has no incentive to end its weapons program and missile tests. Current policies for dealing with North Korea are ineffective and the impasse seems to have no end in sight. Moreover, the weapons program is merely creating an obstacle for any change in the real problem, which is the North Korean system of government.

Instead of sanctions and punitive measures, perhaps it is time to consider new methods for dealing with Pyongyang, possibly something dynamic and unexpected such as increased trade and economic cooperation instead of isolation or free aid? Although some may view this as a reward, it would serve as more of a conduit for ideas to flow along with goods and capital, and as history has proven, when networks of like minded individuals are able to come together, these ideas become increasingly difficult to suppress and will likely spur further change. This change is not always easy but as with the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and even China, it is inevitable.

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