US push for China to pressure Pyongyang doomed to failure

Posted on : 2016-01-11 17:19 KST Modified on : 2016-01-11 17:19 KST
Demands for China to impose economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure run counter to China’s strategic interests
John Kirby
John Kirby

The US is blaming China for North Korea’s abrupt fourth nuclear weapons test and restating the argument that China should play a bigger role in controlling the North, and South Korea seems to be following suit. But the US and South Korea are likely to fail once again, experts say, if their approach to dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue consists of putting all the blame on China for the diplomatic debacle without doing anything themselves.

The main point made by those who emphasize China’s role is that China ought to use its close economic ties with North Korea to put more pressure on the North Korean regime.

“What we most want to see. . .is increased international pressure applied on North Korea,” said US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby during a regular press briefing on Jan. 8. “We obviously want to see China exert its leadership and its influence on Pyongyang.”

In effect, the US government openly called on China to take more active steps to put pressure on North Korea.

“The United States can - and should - push for Beijing to dial back its support [for North Korea],” wrote Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci, two professors at Georgetown University, in a co-authored op-ed that ran in the Jan. 8 edition of the New York Times.

Considering that Cha and Gallucci are former US government officials who are positioned between the doves and hawks in regard to US policy toward North Korea, it can be inferred that wide-ranging support has formed in the US for China playing a bigger role.

Such arguments are prompted by the fact that the US has absolutely no economic leverage over North Korea. In order for economic sanctions to succeed, the country imposing sanctions and the country on which they are being imposed must have long-standing and substantial economic dealings. Furthermore, the country on which the sanctions are placed must be a democracy, so that public opinion can lead to policy change.

But there is no trade between North Korea and the US, and since North Korea is not a democracy, it can instead exploit US sanctions to increase internal solidarity. Thus, it is no surprise that the US has turned to China, which handles 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade and supplies the North with 1 million tons of crude oil every year.

This push for China to play a bigger role, however, is doomed to failure. The first of several reasons is that it amounts to asking China to make a one-sided sacrifice. If China “gets results” by imposing tough sanctions such as cutting off the flow of oil, worsening economic conditions inside North Korea will lead to more defectors, which could create instability in China’s three northeast provinces.

If the North Korean regime collapses, it could trigger a flood of refugees into China and might even bring US forces in South Korea to the border of China. This is what China is most afraid of.

If, on the other hand, Chinese pressure on North Korea does nothing but trigger strident objections from North Korea, China will be left to clean up the diplomatic mess by itself. No matter how the scenario plays out, China stands to lose.

Joseph DeThomas, a former deputy assistant Secretary of State for non-proliferation, said that China will not move until it is convinced that North Korea has nuclear weapons with which it could strike the US. DeThomas, who was involved with sanctions against North Korea and Iran under the administration of US President Barack Obama, made the remarks in a press conference organized by North Korea website 38 North that was held in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7.

Second, China will not abandon the North Korean regime until it deems that the regime is no longer strategically necessary. But with the US attempting to counter the rise of China through trilateral security cooperation with South Korea and Japan - and given its ongoing strategy of rebalancing to Asia - China is unlikely to give up North Korea, which serves as a geopolitical buffer zone.

“China regards the very idea of independent sanctions as playing into the US strategy of driving a wedge between North Korea and China and alienating China,” said a diplomat source in China.

The third reason is that the US insistence that China put pressure on North Korea leaves virtually no room for dialogue with the North.

In Jan. 2015, North Korea promised to temporarily stop its nuclear tests if the US and South Korea stopped their joint military exercises; in Oct. 2015, it expressed willingness to sit down for talks with the US if the US agreed to a peace treaty. But the US government summarily dismissed both offers.

Since China does not have a “carrot” to offer the North Korean regime in regard to its security - the regime’s greatest concern - there is little mediation that China can do.

Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, the US has insisted on pushing China to become more involved. But if the US fails to acknowledge the practical limitations on China’s role, it seems clear that the US will only damage its relations with China without stopping North Korea from continuing to upgrade its nuclear arsenal.

By Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent, and Seong, Yeon-cheol, Beijing correspondent

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