North Korea: where to now?
20 Oct 2017|

A growing list of observers contend that North Korea is now out of reach, that its nuclear program is irreversible and that the smart option is to accept this fact and start concentrating on deterrence and stability with a nuclear North Korea in the loop. It’s hard to quarrel with that view, but let’s see what the situation looks like.

A couple of broad observations stemming from how we got to where we are on this matter seem germane to the way forward. First, by virtue of acts of commission and omission, China and Russia bear a deep responsibility for the character of the regime in the DPRK and for the path that it has elected to travel. China in particular, but also Russia, have to this point done as little as possible (or as much as they thought necessary to preserve the image of responsible states) to address and resolve the DPRK question. (The Gorbachev era was to some extent an exception.) They haven’t felt obligated or compelled to incur costs or take risks to nudge it towards a more positive trajectory. Second, the curious fact that the DPRK seems both invulnerable and utterly paranoid about its security points to some plausible lines of reasoning: (a) that an atmosphere of constant alarm and insecurity serves crucial domestic purposes, namely, the ultimate justification for draconian measures of social control including fanatical devotion to the leader, and (b) that, for deep-seated historical reasons, the DPRK has a rather limited appetite for security support from China.

It’s abundantly clear that no peaceful solution to the Korean issue will emerge from the US seeking to either entice or coerce Pyongyang from a distance. The US and China, on the other hand, working as a team and committed to sustained cooperation and collaboration on the objective of rolling back the DPRK’s nuclear program could be another matter.

Why might Washington and Beijing be willing to embrace such an approach? Two reasons stand out. First, the DPRK has surged unexpectedly to an effective nuclear-weapon capability and has a young leader who may have a strong faith in the ability of his nuclear weapons to deliver policy objectives beyond simple deterrence of attack. That puts the DPRK back into a position where it could generate circumstances that will drag the US and China/Russia into open conflict, something that the latter countries have been keen to avoid since the Korean War. China’s stance on the most recent set of sanctions has brought it closer to the US position than it has been in some three decades, suggesting real concern that its prior tolerance will be exposed and/or that Pyongyang could become too big for its boots. The second concerns a maturing sensation in both major powers that adjusting to a new distribution of economic power could involve dangerous ambiguities for an extended period and that studying past transitions offers fewer reassuring insights than was once thought. What adds to the potential force of these two considerations is that they could be mutually reinforcing.

Any propensity for Washington and Beijing to collaborate openly and purposefully on finding a peaceful outcome on the Korean peninsula would have to be built on dependable bilateral understandings on such things as (a) how to de-conflict their actions—particularly with respect to the DPRK’s strategic nuclear capabilities—in the event of a crisis or conflict in which events unfold very rapidly, and (b) any boundaries that both sides should respect regarding the political and security arrangements they reach or aspire to reach with the states (or state) on the peninsula.

The second crucial conversation will be that between Beijing and Pyongyang. It would be a message of ‘tough love’, namely, that Beijing will remain a dependable source of political, economic and security support for the DPRK on the condition that it commit to capping and eventually eliminating its nuclear-weapon capability. Beijing will have to make clear that it has come reluctantly but firmly to the conclusion that denuclearising the peninsula is in China’s core interests. And it will also have to make clear that it has reached an understanding with the United States about its support for Pyongyang in the negotiations towards denuclearisation and about China–US collaboration to suppress any DPRK endeavours to frustrate that purpose. To be very specific, the DPRK needs to be assured that it can be confident of Chinese support as it prepares for a future without nuclear weapons, but also be convinced that China will no longer shy away from measures that could put the regime at risk if it declines to negotiate in good faith to achieve that objective.

These ideas represent a significant departure from the experience to date and could be dismissed as fanciful for that reason alone. But it’s worth asking the question: How confident are Washington and Beijing likely to be at this point that the DPRK will abandon its belligerence and be content to exist quietly behind its nuclear deterrent? Beijing might also be wondering whether Washington still has the will and the authority to quash the possible (probable?) interest in Japan and South Korea to get their own nuclear weapons if the DPRK arsenal is accepted as a permanent capability.