North Korea Expert: If China Had the Capacity to Contain North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions, It Would Have Done So Already.

News Abroad
tags: nuclear weapons, China, North Korea, Trump

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor. 

Sun-Chul Kim is a sociologist and Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at the Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Emory University. His latest book is Democratization and Social Movements in South Korea: Defiant Institutionalization (Routledge Studies on Modern Korea). He is currently conducting research on self-immolation as part of a broader project on the culture of protest in South Korea.

What are the major problems North Korea is experiencing today?

From North Korea’s point of view, the biggest problem has always been the threat from the U.S. North Korea experienced America’s devastating force firsthand during the Korean War, and has seen America waging war on Vietnam, Iraq, and Libya. While North Korea was able to count on socialist allies during the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc forced North Korea to be left out alone in the world. The perceived threat from the U.S. in the absence of reliable allies explains why, despite global condemnation, North Korea has been pursuing its nuclear program as a safety guarantee.

Domestically, the North Korean regime faces an increasingly diversifying population as a result of economic and social change. The famine in the 1990s broke down the socialist public distribution system and private markets have become an integral part of the North Korean economy ever since. The growth of the market meant that more and more North Koreans were becoming less dependent on the state for their economic survival. On the other hand, the market has facilitated cross-border trade that brought plenty of cultural products into North Korea, such as South Korean TV shows and films. With the influx of cultural products, an increasing number of North Koreans have been opening their eyes to the outside world.

For now, the North Korean regime has been able to find a solution to the potentially destabilizing effects of the market economy by playing up the threat of the U.S. As long as the military tension between North Korea and the U.S. stays high, the regime elites will be able to contain the market mechanisms from undermining their tight control. This is another reason why the North Korean regime is so invested in reproducing the state of crisis through its nuclear and missile tests. Domestic control would be much more difficult without the perception of external threat and the sense of an imminent war.

What do you see as the biggest roadblock for peace relations between the North and the South?

The building of trust is a prerequisite to peace relations between hostile parties. The high military tension in the Korean peninsula indicates the lack of trust among major parties in the region. There is little doubt that North Korea’s uncompromising nuclear ambition poses the biggest challenge to trust-building. However, it is also important to understand that it takes two to tango. The ways in which South Korea and, more importantly, the U.S., approached the issues in the Korean peninsula have also contributed to the escalating tension we observe today.

For one, U.S. policies toward North Korea have long been predicated on the assumption that North Korea is an irrational, erratic, and evil entity that does not deserve the treatment of a normal country. But as much as North Korea was responsible for its own notoriety, the U.S. has also taken a hostile stance toward North Korea that left little room for finding solutions through normal channels. One example is when George W. Bush labeled North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, the “Axis of Evil” in 2002 without clarifying the connections among the three countries or how North Korea presented a direct threat. This eventually led to the breakdown of the precariously hanging Agreed Framework of 1994 in which the U.S. and North Korea had pledged to work toward normalizing relations. I think it’s important to understand it was during times when diplomatic solutions were sought, as in the case of the 1994 Agreed Framework or Six-Party Talks in the 2000s, that tensions abated, if only temporarily.

Complicating the matter were the inconsistencies in North Korean strategies on the side of South Korea and the U.S. The deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for energy in the 1994 Agreed Framework went into effect under the Clinton administration, but broke down with the election of George W. Bush. Ten years of South Korea’s policy of engagement and reconciliation came to a halt under the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration that preferred a more hawkish line toward North Korea. Policy shifts are inevitable in electoral democracies where different preferences compete, but oscillating policies do not bode well when it comes to building trust and peace in conflict situations.

How does the Korean War continue to influence the present?

The Korean War was a devastating war that affected the entire peninsula. While it started as a war between two Koreas, it quickly escalated into an international war that involved the participation of nearly twenty countries. It was also a war that was fought between family members, villagers, and co-workers in Korea. Millions were killed, with one of the highest rate of civilian deaths in modern warfare. The war resulted in what scholars call antagonistic interdependence, a relationship in which one Korea’s raison d'être is defined by its opposition to the other in a constant state of war. In South Korea, the war resulted in decades of autocratic military rule justified by the North Korean threat. Even long after its democratic change in the late 1980s, red-baiting continues to be a common feature in politics and the National Security Law, purported to criminalize “anti-state” activities that may benefit the enemy, survives as a stern reminder of the continuing war between the two Koreas.

In North Korea, the impact of the Korean War was much greater. North Koreans have been taught to believe the war was masterminded by the American imperialists who couldn’t stand a unified Korea and its path to prosperity based on the principles of self reliance. Stoking fear of another U.S. invasion, the North Korean regime created a garrison state where all aspects of everyday life were regimented along the military line. While the North Korean narratives are exaggerated and fabricated, their fear isn’t totally without grounds. During the Korean War, the U.S. carried out a scorched-earth air raid policy that practically wiped out the entire infrastructure in North Korea. The head of the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War reported that the American air raids killed about 20% of the population, or nearly two million North Koreans. The massive destruction caused by U.S. air raids remains as a reminder of ongoing American hostility in North Korea and the fact that it fended off the aggression of the world’s most powerful nation stands as a source of pride.

Another important legacy of the Korean War concerns how the war did not end with a peace treaty, but only found temporary solution through an armistice treaty. A peace treaty may not guarantee permanent peace, but it does provide an important mechanism for the parties involved to formally declare the end of all hostilities. In contrast, the lack of a peace treaty leaves room for hostile action, which is one of the reasons why peace in the Korean peninsula has been so precarious. What is often overlooked is that South Korea was not a party to the armistice. Syngman Rhee, the South Korean leader during the Korean War, was adamant in his refusal to sign the armistice because he wanted to continue the war until Korea was unified. In the end, the armistice was signed by North Korea, China, and the U.S. In combination with the security treaty between the the U.S. and South Korea that places the top command position of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command in the hands of a four-star U.S. general, it gave North Korea all the incentives to ignore South Korea as a serious negotiation partner and instead seek direct bargaining with the U.S.

North Korea officially describes itself as a self-reliant socialist state. Do you agree?

North Korea’s claim to be a “self-reliant socialist state” is more of an ideological statement than a description of how things really are. From the beginning, the establishment of the DPRK would not have been possible without the support from the Soviet Union. Had China not offered military help during the Korean War, the DPRK would have lost the war and not exist today. North Korea’s post-war reconstruction was much more efficient compared to the South, in large part due to the aid that came from its socialist allies in Eastern Europe. And anyone who has been following the news knows that the North Korean economy depends a great deal on its trade with the outside world, China in particular. Like any other country in the world, North Korea, both in the past and present, has to rely on pacts and trades with other countries for its survival.

All this does not mean that North Korea’s claim to “self-reliance” is a total hoax. North Korea in the past refused to be part of the Warsaw Pact, an economic system of trade and “mutual assistance” among socialist nations led by the Soviet Union. When it comes to international politics, North Korea has consistently pursued an independent line that refused to be influenced by the great powers. During the Sino-Russian rift of the 1950s and 60s, North Korea played off the two great powers rather than taking sides, which allowed North Korea greater autonomy. While U.S. policymakers have looked to China to influence North Korea over its nuclear ambition nowadays, time and time again North Korea frustrated them—and China. More recently, North Korea planned its sixth nuclear test to coincide with the opening day of the BRICS summit hosted by China. It was no surprise that the act was seen as a challenge to China.

North Korea is fully aware that its economy will be crippled without foreign trade and has all the intentions to broaden the economic ties with the outside world. But North Korea will not compromise what it sees as its national interest when it comes to international politics, even if it means greater isolation and a faltering economy.

Where do China and Russia stand on North Korea?

The relationship between North Korea and the two superpowers was hardly friendly during the Cold War, but they remained staunch allies. Not any more. Despite the defense treaty between China and North Korea, China has increasingly viewed North Korea less as a “blood ally” and more as a source of annoyance. The breakdown of the Soviet Union resulted in the breakdown of any ostensible sense of solidarity between Russia and North Korea. The only factor that drives each country’s policy toward North Korea today is its national interest. And China and Russia share a common interest in curtailing America’s hegemony and preserving the current balance of power in East Asia.

China has all the incentives to be opposed to North Korea’s nuclearization that can kick off an arms race and destabilize East Asia. The rising tension over North Korea’s nuclear development opened up a window of opportunity for the conservatives in Japan to campaign for dropping Article 9 of the Peace Constitution that would allow Japan to remilitarize. In response to North Korea’s nuclear threat, South Korea last year decided to install the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system whose radars can peek into Chinese territory and conservatives in South Korea are raising voices in support of hosting tactical nuclear weapons. Last but not least, North Korea’s nuclear weapons pose a direct threat to China’s own security. At the same time, China has a strong incentive in preventing a North Korean collapse that could lead to thousands, if not millions, of refugees flooding into Chinese territory. Sharing a border with a unified Korea where American forces are stationed is another scenario China wants to avoid. This is why, as annoying as North Korea may be to China, China prefers to maintain the status quo in East Asia where North Korea continues to act as a buffer.

Already mired in crises in the Ukraine and Syria, Russia has little interest in seeing another crisis situation develop in its far eastern front that could provoke a stronger U.S. presence. Like China, Russia has always opposed sanctions that could destabilize North Korea and has tried to minimize the impacts of North Korean provocations. When the U.S. and its allies held North Korea responsible for the sinking of the South Korean battleship Cheonan in March 2010, Russia’s investigation concluded that that there was insufficient evidence to see North Korea as the cause. More recently in July 2017 when the U.S. and its allies condemned North Korea’s firing of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-14, Russia refused to acknowledge that Hwasong-14 was an ICBM in what was widely seen as an attempt to play down North Korea’s military capability. With the interests of veto-wielding power of China and Russia trying to preserve the status quo, it is unlikely that the U.S. will be successful in using the United Nations as a vehicle to impose devastating sanctions on North Korea.

Do you have any thoughts on if the U.S. pressuring China is a sound strategy? If not, what should the U.S. do?

It depends on what the goal is. If the goal is to induce support for North Korean sanctions by the United Nations, it could work as it has in the past—but only to a certain extent. If the goal is to impose sanctions that could generate serious instability in North Korea, such as the blockage of oil to North Korea, China will most likely oppose it because of reasons mentioned earlier. If the goal is to somehow use China to make North Korea give up its nuclear program, the chances are extremely low. Both sanctions and relying on China to solve the North Korean problem are unlikely to succeed. If China had the capacity to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambition, it would have done so already. And if past sanctions had worked, the world would not be seeing the advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities today. China has opposed, and will continue to oppose, North Korea’s nuclearization. But it is important to understand that China’s opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons is driven by its own self-interests that are often at odds with the interests of the U.S. The U.S. will not find itself on the same page as China as long as it goes toe-to-toe against North Korea. The only way to get out of the current mess is for the U.S. to find ways to talk directly with the North Koreans.

Do you have any recommendations for possible courses of diplomatic action in regards to geopolitical and social disputes there?

This is a difficult question, but I think there are two possible routes toward diplomatic action. The first route involves the work of a third party actor given the assumption that the built-up hostility between North Korea and the U.S. renders it impossible for the two countries to find a diplomatic solution on their own. China has a strong incentive to keep a check on the rising tensions and could possibly broker a deal between North Korea and the U.S. Earlier this year China tried to do just that by proposing a “suspension for suspension” deal in which North Korea suspends its nuclear program in exchange for America’s suspension of its military exercises with South Korea that North Korea sees as a threat. The U.S. refused. If what China can do is limited at this juncture, other countries and/or international bodies like the United Nations can step up to broker or pressure for diplomatic options. But this will require a shift in perspectives toward an understanding that escalating rhetoric and action will only lead to mutual destruction and that a diplomatic solution is the only way out of the current crisis.

Another option is for the U.S. and North Korea to somehow find a way to sit at the negotiating table. This may be very difficult, but I don’t think it can be ruled out. After all, the alleged goal of North Korea’s nuclear program is self-defense and North Korea has been demanding a peace treaty with the U.S. for decades. With nuclear weapons enhancing its bargaining power, there is less reason for North Korea to avoid talks. Now the ball is in the U.S.’s court. It seems as though the U.S. has no choice but to continue with its hostile rhetoric of sanctions and threats, but there could be a shift toward taking a new course of action if more and more in Washington come to see that the escalation of conflict leads to a dead end. A diplomatic solution will not rid North Korea of its current nuclear arsenal for the moment, but it will provide a solid starting point for peace and, hopefully, future denuclearization. Let’s just hope that cooler heads will prevail.

We often hear about the leader of North Korea. Who are the people of this country, and what are they really like, from your perspective? What is the economy and the lifestyle like?

North Koreans are little different from people elsewhere. They love their country, do their best to make a good living, and want to enjoy their leisure time as much as they can. Despite the sanctions, North Korea’s economy has done fairly well in the last decade or so and more North Koreans are enjoying the fruit of economic development and trade. High rise apartments have been erected in major cities thanks to a construction boom. New department stores, markets, and amusement parks are being built to showcase North Korea’s recent economic growth. Millions now own cell phones, flat TVs have become a coveted household item, and North Koreans are increasingly becoming proficient with the cultures, lifestyles, and fashions of the outside world. Of course, it’s only a limited segment of the North Korean population that we are talking about and the highly censored cell phones and the internet are limited within its borders. Nonetheless, these are remarkable changes compared to a decade ago and it is likely that these changes will affect more North Koreans in the coming years.

The biggest difference an average North Korean might have compared to people in other parts of the world is their level of loyalty to their country and adulation of their leader. It is indeed the product of a sick system made out of anti-imperialist nationalism, Confucian paternalism, and totalitarian mind control. However, it is one that is not without its function. Ingrained from a very early age, the cult of the leader is justified by his gallantry and wisdom in the nation’s quest for a prosperous economy and its struggle to fend off threats from foreign aggressors. As obsolete as it may sound, the politicization of North Koreans through the cult of the leader was what carried North Korea to this day when all other communist or totalitarian countries fell. Herein lies a dilemma. To deter North Korea’s nuclear build up, it seems as if the world has no choice but to condemn North Korea’s missile tests and apply crippling sanctions. But these are exactly the responses North Korean leadership needs to rally up its people and justify its nuclear program. The higher the tension between North Korea and the outside world, the less likely it will become for ordinary North Koreans to get out of the grip of their supreme leader.

Are there any other final points you wanted to make?

In my view, an average North Korean knows much more about the U.S. or the outside world than Americans know about North Korea. The outside world needs to learn more about North Korea before making assertions about what to do with it. And there’s a lot of information out there if you looked around. 

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