Last week North Korea sent its love to the world, especially to its Asian neighbors, by testing a medium-to-long-range ballistic missile. It’s reported that the missile successfully traveled 500 kilometers (approximately 310 miles).
North Korea’s dictator Kim Jung-un claimed, “We have the sure capability to attack in an overall and practical way the Americans in the Pacific operation theater.” Although that claim hasn’t been substantiated, the United States and its Asian allies are rightfully concerned. In 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile tests. With each test, the hermit nation gets closer to subjecting the rest of world to apocalyptic danger.
The ultimate question is: what should the United States do about it? Other than paying lip service, the so-called “international community” is usually toothless and lacks resolve when faced with real danger and serious challenges from thugs.
Let’s Start With Our Failures
Let’s first examine what didn’t work in the past. First, years of economic sanctions have failed to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea is already the most isolated country in the world, and it does very little trade with the outside world. Its most important and largest trading partner is China. (The North Korean regime also conducts illicit weapon sales and drug trades with rogue states such as Iran, but income from those trades is small potatoes compared to trade with China).
Since the Korean War, China has been the only steadfast economic backer of North Korea and has provided it with food and fuel to sustain the regime. It’s estimated that North Korea-China trade accounts for about 70 to 90 percent of the trading volumes in North Korea, and trading activities for the two countries have steadily increased in recent years. Had it not been for China’s ongoing economic support, aid, and trading activities, the North Korean regime would have collapsed a long time ago.
China’s increasing economic power has only enhanced its ability to absorb the cost of economically sustaining North Korea. Therefore, other than being a “feel good” measure, international economic sanctions have done little to change North Korea’s behavior. Sanctions or not, the North Korean people continue to suffer under one of the most oppressive and brutal regimes.
Second, years of diplomacy have failed too. China and North Korea have long blamed the “real” military threats from the United States and its allies for Pyongyang’s provocative behavior, even though the only force that constantly threatens regional peace and prosperity is North Korea. The United States and South Korea have tried to extend many olive branches to Pyongyang. Neither South Korea’s “sunshine” policy nor the rounds of six-party negotiations since 2003 have curtailed North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Instead, Pyongyang took advantage of these diplomatic efforts to extract food, energy, and other aid from the international community, then used these resources to support its ruling elites, military, and nuclear program. In some respects, these good-intentioned diplomatic efforts helped extended the North Korean regime’s longevity.
One of the reasons diplomacy hasn’t worked is that from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, North Korean leaders have viewed a nuclear weapon as their only way to get a seat at the table and only insurance plan to sustain their regime. As the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Pollack wrote, “The North Korean leadership has thus convinced itself (if not others) that its existence as an autonomous state derives directly from its possession of nuclear weapons.” Without any nuclear weapon, no one will take North Korea seriously. After all, it’s a small country about one-fifth the size of Texas, with only 24 million people.
China Is a Key Problem Here
The most important reason diplomacy has failed is that China’s interests are different from those of the other parties involved (the United States, Japan, and South Korea). China may be concerned about an overly powerful next-door neighbor with nuclear weapons, so wants to see North Korea’s nuclear program somehow contained. However, China doesn’t want to push North Korea too hard for several strategic reasons.
There’s the well-known potential refugee issue if North Korea collapses. More importantly from a geopolitical standpoint: a standing North Korea would buffer against any U.S. land invasion. While China continues its ascent into a world superpower (or, in China’s words, “returning to its former glory through peaceful rising”), Chinese President Xi Jinping is eager to keep a “benevolent” and “peaceful” superpower façade. Therefore, there are things he won’t publicly say or do to maintain a good global citizen’s image.
But North Korea can serve as an “attack dog” towards western democracies such as the United States. The crazier and the more unpredictable the regime gets, the more it will consume the time, energy, and resources of the United States and its Asian allies. By keeping them busy through North Korea, China has a freer hand to do what it wants, such as building artificial islands in the South and East China Seas.
Despite three decades of economic growth, the Chinese government, especially President Xi, is deeply suspicious of ideas such as democracy and the free market. Ideologically, China is more aligned with North Korea. If North Korea collapses, it would put the Chinese Communist Party’s own legitimacy in question. China can’t and won’t allow that to happen.
No Good Options for the United States
It should be clear to everyone by now that North Korea will never give up its nuclear program and China will never stop supporting Pyongyang economically and politically. So what should the United States do?
Unfortunately, there isn’t any good option. The United States can’t draw a red line against Pyongyang because we all learned from recent history that a red line is useless if there’s no follow-through. A follow-through, in this case, would mean a preemptive strike against one nuclear power (North Korea) that has the backing of another nuclear power (China). It would be a very dangerous undertaking. Not surprisingly, a red line followed by a military strike is out of the question.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is considering a number of proposals: more economic sanctions (remember the definition of insanity?), military exercises with regional allies, and a faster deployment of regional missile defense systems. All are defensive measures, and none is likely to stop North Korea from continuing its nuclear program. Among all these options, speedily deploying regional missile defense systems is probably the only one that will make some difference, which is probably why China has long campaigned against it. Therefore, it should be the Trump administration’s focus.
Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition is threatening not only the peace and prosperity of East Asia but also the rest of the world. The whole world is watching the United States for policy clues, so doing nothing is not an option. Is President Trump up to the challenge?