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Missed Opportunities in North Korea

by PETER LEE

China’s influence on North Korea’s nuclear policy is minimal.  The DPRK knows that the PRC values North Korea both as a buffer and as a profitable hinterland for cheap labor and raw materials that it is completely unwilling to cede to South Korea.  Therefore, the PRC will not push the DPRK to the wall about its nukes.

It is understood both by the United States and the DPRK that, absent a regime implosion countenanced by the PRC, North Korea will never discard its nuclear weapons arsenal, given the negative examples of Iraq (no nukes) and, under the Obama administration, Libya (denuclearized completely in accordance with US demands but subjected to US backed regime change anyway).

However, beyond the genuine security risks of a nuclear North Korea and the theoretical US commitment to nuclear non-proliferation (the somewhat shaky basis for President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize) there are pressing and compelling geostrategic reasons why the United States finds it virtually impossible to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons power.

With a nuclear DPRK, there are increasing calls within South Korea and Japan to establish independent nuclear deterrents and, with them, independent security policies that would undermine the US claims to serve as the indispensable, arms-race-averting superpower in the Western Pacific…and call into question the strategic validity of the “pivot to Asia” which is so dear to the heart of the Obama administration.  Therefore, whenever North Korea churns out another nuclear provocation, the US is compelled to respond with a lot of high profile, aggrieved bellowing and posturing.

The DPRK is desperate to break out of its isolation and its exploitation as a Chinese satrapy and reach out to the United States, much as Burma did.  The United States is quite aware of this, as Wikileaks revealed.  Even as the US bloviates about North Korea’s nukes, it conducts continual back-channel a.k.a. Track II diplomacy through the DPRK’s UN mission and hosts high-level DPRK missions. However, the North Korean bugbear is too useful a justification for the “Asia pivot” to be abandoned; I also expect that Japan and South Korea—which have hitched their wagon to the contain-Pyongyang star—hold a de facto veto over any US rapprochement.

With the United States keen to buttress Japan and South Korea as key elements of its contain-China constellation—and China itself the focus of US strategic concern–the only way for the DPRK to establish its regional relevance is through nuclear brinksmanship—threats that it doesn’t intend to follow through on.

As to what the DPRK hopes to accomplish by yanking Uncle Sam’s chain in the nuclear way, I think there are a few rational calculations at work.  First, North Korea is happy to demonstrate to the United States that China cannot moderate its behavior; therefore, if the Obama administration wants to deal with the North Korean problem, it has to deal with Pyongyang directly.

Second, the DPRK probably welcomes the nuclear stirrings in South Korea and Japan elicited by its nuclear posturing, since the crisis creates a certain amount of urgency for the Obama administration to reach out to Pyongyang and avoid getting sidelined as only one—and the most distant one—of six nuclear weapons powers (China, Russia, the US, and the DPRK currently; Japan and South Korea potentially) in East Asia.

Third, the DPRK—whose technical capabilities in the areas of missile and nuclear technology, though often sneered at, are not to be completely dismissed—can exploit the tensions to justify a race to a) increase its stockpile of weapons grade fissile material b) miniaturize and test its warheads to make them missile-ready and c) work on its long range missiles, before the United States finally decides to bargain with Pyongyang to put the brakes on its WMD programs.

The theoretical way out of this dilemma for the United States is to offer the PRC some meaningful concession (today, a meaningful concession probably means downgrading the Japanese relationship and withdrawing support to Japanese pretensions to the Senkakus and enhanced power projection in East Asia) in return for Beijing pulling the plug on the DPRK and participating in some kind of regime transition.  That’s not going to happen, given President Obama’s dislike for the PRC, his infatuation with the “pivot”, and US unwillingness to betray Japan and South Korea.

So the US is making lemons out of lemonade by using the DPRK’s nuclear brinksmanship to push the pivot narrative of US indispensability in East Asia with missile defense, B2 flights, military maneuvers, etc. that don’t solve the North Korea problem but do a pretty good job of exacerbating Chinese hostility.  That’s why I feel the US is passing up an (admittedly remote) opportunity.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking story on North Korea’s nuclear program, Big Bang Theory in North Korea, appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

February 10, 2016
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