Why U.S.-China Strategic Competition Is Unlikely to Help Manage North Korea’s Transition

The growing geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China makes prospects for productive partnership in managing North Korea much less likely

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KRT / Reuters

New North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un pays his respects to his father and former leader Kim Jong Il, lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, in this still picture taken from video footage aired by KRT (Korean Central TV of the North) December 20, 2011.

Strange as it may sound given the vast imbalance of military and economic power between them, North Korea actually holds the strategic initiative in its eternally troubled relationship with the U.S. That much is obvious from the pattern repeated over the past two decades, in which the U.S. is always forced to respond to Pyongyang, be it in provocative or conciliatory mode. Washington, whether in the hawkish posture of the first months of the Bush Administration or the conciliatory mood of the final months of the Clinton era, has simply been unable to set the agenda in its dealings with North Korea. 

The regime of President Kim Jong Il would build and detonate nuclear weapons, test fire missiles or launch unprovoked attack on South Korean military personnel and even civilians. Or, it would offer steps toward easing back on the expansion of its nuclear arsenal and engage in talks over denuclearizing the Korean peninsula in exchange for vital economic aid. Either way, the U.S. and its allies would be the party having to respond by alternately talking tough and cutting off aid, or offering sweeteners in exchange for North Korean concessions.

The reason for that unhappy pattern was simple: the U.S. and South Korea could not risk the consequences of a military assault on North Korea — Seoul is so close to the armistice line that divides the two Koreas that even without nuclear weapons the North within an hour could rain down enough conventional artillery and missile fire to destroy the city. America does so little business with North Korea as to make sanctions meaningless — and the North would respond to any blockade as if to an act of war. At the same time, the U.S. and its allies have been reluctant to heed North Korea’s demand for a normalization of ties and security guarantees that would take regime change off the table and would be perceived to be rewarding Pyongyang’s extortionist behavior.

At least that’s how President George W. Bush saw it, coming into power and letting it be known that he “loathed” Kim Jong Il; he publicly rebuked his then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, for suggesting that the new administration would follow the Clinton policy of offering economic aid in exchange for nuclear cooperation. The Bush Administration hawks, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, made no secret of their preference for regime change in Pyongyang. But the Bush Administration, bumping up against the limits of the options available, had within two years defaulted to a version of the Clinton policy of negotiating economic concessions in return for good behavior. The key difference was that the Bush Administration recognized the centrality of China to any solution to the North Korean standoff and engaged Pyongyang via six-party talks that also included China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Unable to squeeze the concessions it sought out of the Bush Administration, North Korea repeatedly launched provocative missile tests and walked out of six-party talks. Finally, in October 2006 it tested its first nuclear weapon. Even then, Bush had little alternative but to return to the table.

Recognizing the limited leverage available to Washington, the Bush Administration saw China as the key to managing the North Korea issue: Beijing had a long-standing relationship with the regime in Pyongyang, to which it played to the role of key economic benefactor. If China cut the power supply, the lights went off in North Korea. And the Chinese maintained an active involvement with the regime’s leadership (Indeed, when Kim Jong Un was first unveiled as the presumptive heir of Kim Jong Il last year, the two men were joined on the stage by a representative of the leadership in Beijing, as if to sanctify the succession.)

It was recognized, of course, that China was unlikely to choke the regime into collapse, out of fear that the resulting chaos would bring hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across the border into China. Nonetheless, it was also assumed that China would want to avoid a war on its doorstep, and would use its influence and leverage to keep a leash on North Korea that would, at least, contain its provocations.

The Obama Administration appeared to follow the same logic with its policy of “strategic patience” — a.k.a. malign neglect, hoping that ignoring Pyongyang, allowing the sclerosis of the economy to sap the regime’s strength and relying on China to prod the leadership would lead to negotiations. The objective was to contain North Korea, while avoiding any risky engagement that could make the Obama Administration politically vulnerable at home.

Still, Obama was greeted by another North Korean nuclear test in October 2009. And in the following year, Pyongyang sank a South Korean navy vessel, killing some 50 sailors; shelled a South Korean residential island, killing two civilians and two soldiers; and revealed that it had developed a new uranium-enrichment plant to give itself a second source of nuclear material (besides the plutonium produced by its reactor).

It’s prudent to assume that the neophyte “Brilliant Leader” — and those within the regime’s shadowy inner circles who serve as his regents — will seek to demonstrate his internal authority and the requisite militancy to lead the “anti-imperialist” state by launching some new provocation. Given the potentially treacherous political transition within the regime, the responses to such provocations could touch off a potentially disastrous escalation.

But while China would share the U.S. interest in preventing a meltdown, it ought to be obvious by now that Beijing’s interests in North Korea are not the same as those of Washington. In short, even as offensive to China’s post-Maoist collective leadership principle as the Pyongyang Kim family dynasty may be, Beijing appears to believe that its own interests require that the regime survive. That’s because its collapse would not only bring refugees streaming across the border, but would also result in the reunification of the Koreas, which would put a U.S. ally right on China’s doorstep. That’s not an outcome China is likely to allow, if it’s at all within its power to prevent.

The assumption, common to the Bush and Obama Administrations, that China can be scolded, cajoled or shamed into taking charge of the messy business of getting rid of the Kim family may have run its course. Team Obama has, after all, announced its “pivot to Asia,” putting the continent at the center of U.S. foreign policy priorities (after a decade of distraction in the Middle East) — and that means stepping up to China. Recent moves by the Administration point unambiguously toward growing strategic competition with Beijing — from the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia and U.S. statements of support for China’s neighbors in territorial disputes with Beijing to the U.S. opening to Burma (now that its military leaders appear ready to take advantage of the U.S.-China rivalry to reinforce their own strategic independence). That growing competition, which highlights the geopolitical competition between the two sides, makes prospects for productive partnership in managing North Korea much less likely. China, in short, may have a vested interest in continuing business-as-usual with North Korea, and making things easier for the U.S. in North Asia may not figure very high in Beijing’s priorities right now.