Calling North Korea’s Bluff Will Force China to Crackdown

by Collin Spears – Visiting Fellow, Center for New Politics and Policy

If the United States and its allies want to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, and not just temporarily allay tensions, they must call Kim Jong-Il’s bluff by escalating the situation.  As North Korea’s primary benefactor, China is the only nation that can force the North to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and return to 6-Party Talks.  However, China will not exert such pressure, until the threat of instability on its border forces it to recalculate the utility of supporting the Kim regime. When the liability of North Korea becomes a greater threat to China’s internal security than the potential presence of American troops at its border, China will cooperate with the American alliance.  Contrary to common media depiction, Kim is a rational actor.  In fact, when scrutinizing North Korea’s conduct with the supposition that every action it has taken is for the preservation of Kim’s personal power, it is apparent that even the most provocative actions have been deliberate.  America must use a realist approach to exploit these aims, if it wants to end the last great impasses of the Cold War.

The North had already earned global condemnation early this year, in April, when it conducted its first long-range missile test since 2006.  Nevertheless, in clear violation of United Nations Resolution 1718, on May 25, North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test and subsequently tested several short-range missiles.  The nuclear device was detonated about 50 miles northwest of the city of Kilju, near the site of the first atomic test.  Analyst believed the first bomb was less than one kiloton in size and only partially successful; however, Russian officials have estimated that the second had a yield of 10 to 15 kilotons.  This would make it comparable to the atomic bomb America dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in August of 1945.  North Korea could possess enough plutonium for at least a half dozen more bombs of this size, but this estimate could change.  North Korea has also restarted production at its nuclear fuel fabrication plant at Yongbyon.

This latest flurry of melodrama from the North has come about for three reasons.  First, North Korea feels it has been ignored and wants to force the new Obama Administration into bilateral talks.  Second, Kim Jong-il’s health is likely worse than reported and he is trying to rally military support around himself and his potential successor, likely his son-in-law or youngest son.  Third, the cash strapped North wants to solidify its status as a nuclear power to attract clients, such as Iran.

The international response to the tests was predictable.  There was unanimous censure from the UN Security Council and agreement by most members, that sanctions are appropriate, but there is currently no draft for a new resolution circulating.  Part of the problem is China.  Because of China’s close ties to Pyongyang and its insistence that North Korea halt its nuclear activities, the latest test was seen as a “loss of face” for China, which explains China’s unusually strong condemnation of North Korea.  Still, enthusiasm in Beijing for a new round of sanctions has been tepid.

So far, China has only agreed in principle to sanctions.  This is problematic; even if China did vote for a new round of sanctions, they would have little effect without China’s genuine adherence.  More than any other nation, China has the most leverage over North Korea.  As Judith Miller (2009) has pointed out, “[China] supplies between 80-90 percent of North Korea’s power, 90 percent of its crude oil and all of its diesel fuel.  Between 70 and 80 percent of North Korea’s food imports come through China”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu stated that China has two main objectives, a nuclear free Korean peninsula and general stability in the region (Ho 2009).   This is true, but the Chinese definition of “stability” is specific to its strategic interests.  China fears greater sanctions will lead to North Korea’s collapses, which could result in the inundation of the poor industrial rustbelt of Northeastern China (Manchuria) with millions of North Korean refugees.  This is especially threatening to China since Changbai (Baekdu in Korean) Mountain is in this region.  The area around this mountain has historically been contentious, because Koreans consider it the place where their origin.  Further, China does not want a united American-friendly Korea on its border.

Like China, The United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, also desire a non-nuclear North Korea.  For some reason, not supported by historical precedence, the Obama Administration and many analysts seems to believe that their ability to achieve this lies solely in getting North Korea to rejoin 6-Party Talks.  The hope is that the united will of the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia will force North Korea to dismantle its nuclear facilities in return for a normalization of relations and economic and humanitarian aid.  There is even talk of the U.S. assuaging North Korea by assigning a high-profile diplomat or even giving into bilateral talks.  These are stopgap measures that will lead back to the same situation as soon as the North sees an opportunity to exploit the process.

In 1994, the United States and North Korea signed a framework where the North agreed to shut down their nuclear facilities and accept weapons inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency in return for normalized relations with the United States and large sums in aid from Japan, South Korea and the U.S.  North Korea failed to honor the agreement.  Another agreement was reached in February 2007, where the North agreed to give up nuclear weapons and dismantle its nuclear reactor in return for fuel, food and North Korea’s removal from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.  North Korea also violated this deal.  After 15 years, the only results have been little more than the repeated negotiation of bribes.

North Korea will never honestly negotiate a dismantling of its nuclear weapons; this is the only trump card that has ensured cash flow into the regime.  The North is “mafia state” lead by the Kim family with a wide patronage network that extends into the Worker’s Party and the military.  When the liquidity of this system dries up, Kim family rule ends.  China understands this well.  The allies cannot permit a de facto acceptance of a nuclear-armed North.  This situation would likely lead Japan to remilitarize and potentially nuclearize, which would destabilize the power balance in the region.  It will also be a deathblow to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as many states will be encouraged to develop their own nuclear capabilities.

America’s regional allies have advocated a tougher stance. For its part, Tokyo has objected to the continuation 6-Party Talks, citing a lack of progress on the abduction of their citizens by North Korea from 1977-1983.  The Japanese strongly disagreed with the previous Bush administration over removing North Korea from the terrorism blacklist, and the Japanese Prime Minister Aso has repeatedly called for a new UN Resolution with harsher sanctions.  South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, being more hawkish than his predecessors, has agreed to join the U.S.-led multinational Proliferation Security force, where it will aid in intercepting North Korea ships.  The North has responded to this by stating that any act against their vessels would result in them no longer honoring the armistice signed at the end of the Korean War.  Also, in stereotypical boilerplate rhetoric, the North’s official news agency has warned, “Those who provoke [North Korea] once will not be able to escape its unimaginable and merciless punishment…”.

If the United States and its allies ever wish to accomplish their goals, they must change the dynamic.  Kim Jong-il has to be convinced that any action other than the cessation of all missile testing and nuclear material production will result in a war he can not win, regime change, and him on trial at the Hague or dead.  America must be careful to present this in a way that is obvious to Kim and China that Kim has a choice in deciding his future.

Undoubtedly, such bold action will result in the immediate escalation of tensions, but it will also force China to recalculate the usefulness of buttressing North Korea.  If China wants stability on its border a costly war, which will possibly involve U.S. and even Japanese soldier at the Yalu River border would not be beneficial to its economic growth.  The Chinese government has not published official figures on “mass incidents”, a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) term for riots; demonstrations; and protests since 2004.  In that year 74,000 incidents were recorded, a 28% change over the previous year. Foreign analysts, drawing on Chinese sources, estimated the 2005 figure to have been 80,000-85,000 (Keidel 2006). Considering the trend line, starting from 1993, there is no reason to think the number of incidents has not increased at the historic average of 20% a year.  Most of these incidents are due to corruption and the lack of economic opportunity in rural areas, where most Chinese still live.  It is not in China’s interest to sacrifice its own internal stability, which is a greater threat to CCP power than losing North Korea as a buffer zone.  Still, before China could stop aiding North Korea, because there is a possibility of state collapse before Kim Jong-il submits to external pressure, the U.S. and Japan must guarantee China (and South Korea) that they will deal with the resulting refugee situation.  The U.S. must also promise China not to move U.S. troops above the 38th parallel (Korean Demilitarized Zone), even if Korea is unified.

Calling Mr. Kim’s bluff and pressuring China is a risky proposition.  North Korea could decimate Seoul and the estimated 1.2 million troops on the border will likely overrun U.S. and South Korean resistance.  Japan is also a likely target of North Korean missile attacks.  These are potential threats, but the reality is, that in the last 15 years North Korea has increased its military capability, and there is no reason to believe that trend will not continue.  History instructs that it is better to take decisive action sooner rather than later.

In order to force Kim to the bargaining table, the U.S. and its allies must do the following:  First, improve and expand the missile defense shield and inform Pyongyang that any further missiles launched outside North Korea airspace will be shot down, as they are a violation of international law. Secondly, any ships leaving or entering North Korean waters will be searched for contraband according to UN resolution 1718.  Ships refusing to submit to searches will be sunk.  Thirdly, the South Korean Sunshine Policy is officially over.  There will be no further economic interaction until North Korea unconditionally returns to 6-Party Talks.  Fourthly, there will be a new joint commission established to investigate the Japanese abduction issues.  Fifthly, there will be no bilateral talks.  Lastly, North Korea can only return to 6-Party Talks after it has shut down its nuclear power plant and allowed unfettered access to UN weapons inspectors.


Hamlin, Kevin and Li, Yanping. 2009. “China’s GDP Growth Slowed to 6.8% in Fourth Quarter (Update2)”
Bloomberg Press Online.

Ho, Stephanie. 2009. “China Urges ‘Coolheaded’ Response to North Korea”
Voice of America Online.

Miller, Judith. 2009. “The Key to Reining In North Korea? It’s China, Stupid…”

Prasad, Eswar. 2009. “The Effect of the Crisis on the U.S.-China Economic Relationship”
Brookings Online.


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