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Deter Pyongyang through Beijing

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Bush and Obama administrations’ policy toward North Korea—avoid angering Beijing’s leaders in hopes that they will voluntarily help in Pyongyang—has proven ineffective. It’s time to coerce China.

As debate over how to deal with North Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program has raged over the past eight years, China has quietly but consistently ensured that no real progress has been achieved on the issue. Until now, China has pursued its own ends on the Korean peninsula while receiving American plaudits for any action deemed helpful, no matter how minimal. But in recent months, China has eschewed any hint of subtlety in protecting Pyongyang. While Beijing has not condoned the Cheonan’s sinking, it has certainly sided with the DPRK, publicly questioning the validity of the international investigation’s findings, watering down a UN Security Council (UNSC) presidential statement to the point of irrelevance, and objecting to all South Korean and U.S. responses to the sinking as upsetting regional stability.

There should no longer be any question about in whose corner China stands. China’s primary concern is maintaining a friendly regime in North Korea, which will continue to act as a buffer between Chinese territory and U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula. As a result, many analysts concluded that Washington should sideline Beijing and work instead with Seoul and Tokyo to resolve the issue. Why cooperate with a country that has no interest in pursuing our intended end?

Kim Jong-Il’s possession of nuclear weapons has convinced him he can act provocatively without punishment.

But it is no longer clear that Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo can directly affect North Korea’s behavior. Kim Jong-Il’s possession of nuclear weapons has convinced him he can act provocatively without punishment. Allied response to the Cheonan sinking may have proved him right. South Korea could not seriously entertain responding in kind, knowing that Kim has the potential to escalate with nuclear weapons. Instead, Washington and Seoul have responded by tightening ties, pursuing UNSC action, imposing new sanctions, and exercising their militaries off the Korean coastline—all appropriate policy responses, but unlikely to cause the Dear Leader pain sufficient to deter him in the future. If the Cheonan attack was driven by internal political dynamics, as some analysts have suggested, the United States has even less leverage to affect North Korean behavior.

Of course, there is one country with significant leverage over North Korea. The DPRK’s oldest and most important friend and ally, China, is obligated by treaty to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” should North Korea come under attack. Moreover, Chinese trade and investment is a lifeline for the North Korean economy. In 2008, China accounted for 42 percent of North Korea’s exports and 57 percent of its imports. Earlier this year, China reportedly injected $10 billion of foreign direct investment into the North Korean economy; by some estimates, that equals as much as 70 percent of the North’s GDP. China is North Korea’s primary enabler; Kim and his cronies should be thanking Beijing daily for their survival.

Simply put, China is North Korea’s primary enabler; Kim and his cronies should be thanking Beijing daily for their survival.

The question is how to get China to exercise its leverage. The Bush and Obama policy—avoid angering Beijing’s leaders in hopes that they will voluntarily help on North Korea—has proven ineffective. In order to enlist China’s help, the United States must force Beijing to reevaluate its interests. In a cost-benefit analysis of its support for the Pyongyang regime, China should come to see the costs as unacceptably high. It’s time to coerce the People’s Republic.

But how should the United States do so? There are both military and economic components to a coercive strategy. When Beijing issued strong objections to combined U.S.-South Korean exercises in the Yellow Sea and to the participation of an aircraft carrier therein, it became even more important that such exercises occur. Fortunately, the Department of Defense has recently announced that the USS George Washington strike group will participate in upcoming Yellow Sea exercises. In addition, the administration should consider increasing the tempo of maritime surveillance operations in the Yellow Sea or surging missile defense assets to the region. If China wants to keep these instruments of American power distant from its shores, it can beseech Pyongyang to behave itself in the future.

The United States and its allies should also impose sanctions that target Chinese companies and financial institutions that facilitate or fund Pyongyang’s illegal activities.

The United States and its allies should also impose sanctions that target Chinese companies and financial institutions that facilitate or fund Pyongyang’s illegal activities. Moreover, any Chinese entity circumventing sanctions on North Korea should find it exceedingly difficult to do business elsewhere. Thanks to its not-so-paranoid fear of domestic instability, the Chinese leadership is very sensitive to the economic consequences of its actions.

Should China come to see its continued support of Kim Jong-Il as detrimental to its national security and economic interests, there are a number of steps Beijing could take to encourage the Dear Leader to cease his violent provocations. For example, Beijing could threaten to cut off economic ties; to terminate the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance; to facilitate the flow of refugees through China to South Korea; or to deny support to Kim Jong-Il’s chosen successor.

For too long, the United States has let China get away with undermining allied efforts to deter North Korean aggression. The United States has tried playing nice and has nothing to show for it. It’s time for a new tack. Only by getting tough on China can Washington hope to forestall another Cheonan.

Michael Mazza is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Mazza also discussed “The Red Menace” from North Korea, China’s expansionist strategy in “China and the Lost Pearls,” the National Security Administration’s downgrade on China in “I Spy? Not Anymore,” and said, “Australia Understands the China Threat. Does the U.S.?” Michael Auslin notes the “Pacific Command Pushes Back” against Chinese expansion, John Bolton advocates “Confronting China’s Snarl,” and Dan Blumenthal rejoices when “The U.S. Stands Up to China’s Bullying.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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