With North Korea likely to field a reliable nuclear deterrent within the next 5-10 years, the U.S. has a closing window of opportunity to end the cyclical provocations from Pyongyang, which will become extraordinarily dangerous in a fully nuclearized context.
Currently, U.S. policy is primarily aimed at persuading China to increase its pressure on North Korea to force it to denuclearize. This is a tried-and-tested route to failure. In the past, China has usually increased support for the North following provocations, and its underlying interests in North Korea have only increased since the U.S. pivot.
Fortunately, the U.S. and its allies do not need China’s cooperation to break the North Korean cycle. A more effective approach towards Pyongyang requires identifying why the regime perpetuates these crises, and then devising a policy that changes the incentive structure it faces. This can be achieved through a “strategic sunshine” policy that combines aspects of the Obama administration’s strategic patience strategy with South Korea’s former sunshine policy.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
For all the talk about the opaque nature of the Kim regime, we have a good understanding of why it perpetuates these crises: to extract desperately needed aid. The origins of this strategy date back to the Cold War when North Korea masterfully exploited the Sino-Soviet split to extract aid from both regimes, promising much in return. If one of its patrons tried to force its hand on an issue of importance, then leader Kim Il-Sung would throw his support more forcefully behind the other patron. This infuriated Chinese and Soviet leaders but ultimately they were not willing to allow the North to align completely with their Communist rival.
Kim Il-Sung’s maneuvering was so successful at extracting aid that the North Korean economy became completely dependent on its continuation. This level of dependence was almost certainly greater than even Kim understood, because much of it was not in the form of direct handouts but more subtle methods like the Soviet Union accepting unusable goods from Pyongyang, and counting them as trade.
This worked well until the Cold War ended and both Russia and China became more interested in economic engagement with the increasingly prosperous South than demonstrating solidarity with the North. As a result, Russia and China’s aid to the North quickly ended and Pyongyang’s economy collapsed almost immediately. The Kim regime, by this time led by Kim Jong-Il, calculated that it could not implement the necessary economic reforms to liberalize the economy without threatening its grip on power. Finding new sources of aid was thus the only way to stay in power.
It achieved this by exploiting its prospective patrons’ most deeply held fears while arousing their most sought after desires. The Chinese government’s greatest interest is in maintaining internal stability, which in no small part rests on its ability to deliver high growth rates. Millions of North Koreans refugees pouring into China in the event of a regime collapse would threaten this internal stability, which was illustrated to Beijing during North Korea’s famine years when thousands of refugees crossed the Yalu River. This experience illuminated to Beijing just how disastrous a regime collapse would be, and it began paying up dutifully.