Outsourcing North Korea Policy

The United States has basically thrown up its hands in the current crisis with North Korea. Washington has mounted an aggressive campaign at the UN to further isolate the world’s noisiest nuclear aspirant. But no one thinks that UN actions will have much effort.

There is no greater indication of frustration than the revival of the perennial U.S. calls for China to take the lead in resolving the problem. Such are the strange reversals of history. In 1950, China intervened in the Korean War to beat back American soldiers and preserve the North Korean state. Sixty years later, America is desperate for China to intervene once again but this time to restrain its neighbor.

“To have any chance of success, our focus must first and foremost be on Beijing, as China is the lifeline of the North Korean regime,” writes Robert Joseph, one of the hardliners on North Korea in the Bush State Department. “To succeed, we must get China to use its leverage for reasons of its own interest.” Other writers, including Henry Kissinger, urge the United States to provide reassurances to China — that the Pentagon, for instance, would not take advantage of instability in North Korea to press a military advantage in Northeast Asia — in exchange for increased pressure from Beijing on Pyongyang.

Perhaps the most bizarre analysis to appear recently has come from Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum. China has influence over North Korea, she asserts. It wants to gain influence over the United States. So it is deliberately encouraging North Korea in its provocative actions: in order to test the mettle of the Obama administration. “North Korea is a puppet state, and the Chinese are the puppeteers,” she writes. “They could end this farce tomorrow.”

But China is no puppeteer, and North Korea is no puppet. The notion that China has so much influence that it could stoke the conflict or bring it to a close is either wishful thinking (Joseph) or Cold War paranoia (Applebaum).

China is certainly furious over North Korea’s recent actions, particularly the May nuclear test. At the UN, China has backed both increased sanctions against North Korea and interdiction at sea. “Kim Jong-il’s folly has deprived the North of its last important friend in the international arena and has dramatically brought new unity to Asia,” writes Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International & Strategic Studies in Beijing.

Yes, China was North Korea’s most important friend in the international arena. That friendship was forged in war, sustained in overlapping ideology, and, more recently, kept on life support through Beijing’s large deliveries of food and fuel.

But that friendship was always conflicted. If you go to Pyongyang, for instance, you will find virtually no acknowledgment of China’s contributions to the Korean War. North Korea has always been prickly about its “big brother” to the West. North Korean ideologists have counterposed the philosophy of juche — self-reliance — against sadaejuii, or flunkeyism. Sadaejuii refers to the tributary system that China presided over in East Asia for hundreds of years and that treated Korea as a satellite territory. North Korea’s self-reliance is not simply directed against the international system or the United States but against China and its efforts to secure a sphere of influence.

This resentment of neighborly paternalism translated into North Korea’s rejection of Chinese advice on agricultural reforms and economic modernization. Tensions have emerged around trade and aid. More importantly, China has had precious little influence over North Korea’s military decisions.

Sovereignty is the essential focus of the regime in Pyongyang. The government asserts its right to control what goes on within its borders — nuclear tests, rocket launches, detentions of journalists, economic reform. It is the nature of sovereignty that no one can tell you what to do. In this sense, North Korea is probably the last truly sovereign country in the world. It rejects the interfering influences of the United States, the UN, human rights organizations, and journalists. And, despite lingering ideological and historical bonds, North Korea keeps China at arm’s length as well.

China is not eager to undermine North Korea’s sovereignty. It doesn’t want to push the regime to collapse. Beijing doesn’t want the refugee flows. It doesn’t want the economic turmoil. And it certainly doesn’t want South Korea and the United States to take over the North and push U.S. troops up toward the Chinese border.

In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld broached the possibility of teaming up with Beijing to effect regime change in Pyongyang. Kissinger and others have essentially revived this plan. It is certainly more likely today than in 2003 that China would decide to cut North Korea loose and team up with the United States. At some point in Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis, North Korea becomes too much of a losing proposition.

But even with China’s assistance, which is still very much a long shot, regime change will be a very messy process. China doesn’t pull the strings in Pyongyang and can’t simply wave a magic wand to change North Korea’s politics. Regime change would likely involve war.

By all means, we should work with China on a diplomatic solution to the current crisis. But we should recognize that the more China censures North Korea, the less influence it has over the regime. If we want China to have more influence, we shouldn’t encourage it to take the harder line position.

In the end, however, China can’t resolve the crisis with North Korea. It has neither the will nor the way. Pyongyang’s beef is largely with the United States. We have to be ready to talk, one on one, without conditions. China, for all its proximity and experience, can’t do this for us.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.