Feels Like the Third Time*
By Andrew Kydd
North Korea has detonated its third nuclear device and its first to convincingly split some atoms, although the estimated yield is still less than half that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The US, Japan, South Korea and the IAEA have duly expressed outrage and made vague threats of consequences, and China has duly called for calm. The end result of the nuclear test may be some moderately increased sanctions, but do not look for any real movement for the following reasons.
- The North Korean regime needs to maintain tension between itself and the outside world in order to survive, both as a regime and as individuals. If the regime ever opens up, as China has, it will be overthrown and North Korea will be absorbed by South Korea. In that case, former regime members still in country will be prosecuted, and perhaps executed, for their role in starving millions of North Koreans to death. Only by maintaining an atmosphere of constant hostility can the regime justify its policy of closure to the outside world and remain in power. It will therefore continue the weapons programs because they help assure a steady supply of threats from the outside world.
- China is the only remaining country with leverage over North Korea. However, China is not disposed to pull the plug on the regime because its downfall would lead to a unified Korea part of the US sphere of influence, hosting US troops on China’s border. China fought the Korean war to prevent that outcome and is not going to allow it now.
- A deal that would clearly make all sides better off exists. In this deal, China would offer asylum to the North Korean leadership in exchange for their peacefully handing over their country to Seoul. The US would in turn withdraw its troops. South Korea would then adopt a neutral perspective on foreign policy questions involving China, a la Sweden in the Cold War. China gets security, stability and an end to its Korean refugee problems, the US solves the Korean proliferation problem, South Korea gets unity on their terms and the North Koreans get to eat.
- This deal will probably not happen because of mistrust between the US and China. There are many reasons for the Chinese and the US to mistrust each other. The Chinese do have revisionist ambitions vis-a-vis Taiwan and the South China Sea. The US would certainly like to contain Chinese expansion and shore up our allies in the region. However, it is not clear that China has revisionist aims on the Korean peninsula, nor that the US actually wants to station troops on the Yalu. Therefore the generalized lack of trust between the two would seem to be obscuring their vision of a question where their interests really do not conflict that much. This kind of thing happened in the Cold War as well, but the US and Soviets did manage to cooperate in some isolated areas in the midst of the general confrontation. The US and China would be wise to follow suit, especially since the gains from cooperation on this issue are so great.
*Hat tip to Freakwater, and their album of that title, a masterpiece.