What to do about North Korea

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

North Korea’s latest nuclear test, on 12 February, has left the international community in a quandary about what to do to rein in Pyongyang’s ambitions for nuclear power status.

Even China has become more and more frustrated with North Korea’s failure to take its cautionary advice and now appears more willing to join tougher collective sanctions, if not take unilateral action, to put the squeeze on its troublesome neighbour.

In this week’s lead essay one of China’s leading foreign affairs analysts, Jia Qingguo of Peking University, points out that ‘China has persistently tried to help North Korea to sustain its economy and shield it from tougher international reactions to its unpredictable and threatening behaviour on the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. But despite this help, Pyongyang does not seem to listen to Beijing’. Pyongyang’s going ahead with another nuclear test — against Beijing’s advice — ‘has led to significant changes in the Chinese debate over how to deal with the North Korean problem’.

Jia argues that Beijing’s policy on North Korea has always sought a balance between two objectives: stability and denuclearisation. ‘Beijing desires stability in the Korean Peninsula because it believes that a stable and friendly North Korea is in China’s long-term strategic interest. It also believes, as a practical matter, that conflict in the Korean Peninsula would not only jeopardise China’s security but also bring with it a serious refugee problem’.

But like the rest of the international community, China does not want a nuclear-armed North Korea, both for strategic and practical reasons. Beijing believes, according to Jia, that Pyongyang’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons would undermine the nuclear non-proliferation regime in which China is invested strategically. China also has four very practical reasons for avoiding a nuclear North Korea: Pyongyang’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons would prompt China’s neighbours, especially Japan and South Korea, to do the same and increase the chance of a nuclear war along Chinese border; Pyongyang’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons threatens to invite a pre-emptive strike from the United States; given Pyongyang’s dire economic circumstance, North Korea may also be tempted to sell nuclear technology or even nuclear weapons to recover some of the costs of its development — the likely buyers being international terrorist groups; and, even if Pyongyang does not sell nuclear technologies or weapons to terrorists they could fall into the wrong hands if Pyongyang collapses, which is not implausible given the mounting political and economic problems in the country.

The dilemma for China’s policy strategists, given these concerns, has been whether to choose stability or denuclearisation. Stability emphasised opposition to pre-emptive attacks against North Korea and resistance to tough international sanctions that threaten to bring down the North Korean government. Denuclearisation required the endorsement of tougher sanctions that sought to force Pyongyang to give up developing nuclear weapons. Beijing has so far opted for stability over denuclearisation, but following the latest test, the mood in Beijing has shifted discernibly towards emphasising the denuclearisation objective. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called in North Korea’s Ambassador to China to issue a stern warning. Even the generally anti-Western Global Times argued that China should cut back its aid to Pyongyang.

Whatever new sanctions Beijing signs on to, it will nonetheless do whatever it can to avoid the chaos that would follow a North Korean collapse. So what can the international community really do about North Korea, even with a little more help from China though perhaps rather less from Russia?

What has always been clear is that its nuclear capacity has no security value to North Korea except as a lever to extort resources or extract a peace accord with the United States and the other Parties to the Six Party Talks. It is of little value as a weapons system in the near future. North Korea needs substantial inputs of food, fuel, fertiliser, foreign currency, and other things, simply to survive. And if its aim is to attain long-term economic and political security it must secure a peace agreement with the United States. Trade embargoes, other international sanctions and the tight United States-South Korea-Japan policy coordination, now have North Korea on a Chinese drip that is likely to offer less and less sustenance now. North Korean regime survival increasingly points to the one way out — to negotiate terms for stopping, rolling back, and relinquishing its nuclear and missile programs in return for peace and economic as well as political security.

This sharp reality does not mean that the time for negotiation with Pyongyang has ended. Rather that time for negotiation is more urgent and its purpose is more sharply focused. It certainly doesn’t mean, as Emma Campbell’s piece on this Forum made clear, that this is a time to reject diplomatic initiative from Pyongyang (including through its desire to re-open its embassy in Canberra). It is a time, as the Obama administration has made clear, for pause, but also for intensification of, not for stopping, active negotiations preconditioned on a nuclear development freeze.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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