The North Korea Crisis in Regional Context

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The North Korea Crisis in Regional Context

A look at the geopolitical drivers of policy in North Korea, China, and elsewhere.

The North Korea Crisis in Regional Context
Credit: Flickr / John Pavelka

North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear capabilities and their delivery systems spells trouble for the United States and China. China is concerned about the impact of the advancement of North Korea’s weapons programs on the regional security architecture: it could drive a potential full rearmament of Japan; trigger a serious debate within the United States and South Korea about the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) on the Korean peninsula; or compel Washington to pursue unilateral policies that cross China’s bottom line on North Korea.

For the United States, North Korea poses a major challenge to nonproliferation, as it most likely proliferates missile and nuclear technologies to countries of concern. For Washington and Beijing, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions could serve as a structural force sparking a regional nuclear arms race with Japan in the lead, which could reignite the nuclear ambitions of South Korea and Taiwan — all of which have the indigenous capability to develop nuclear weapons.

To date, North Korea’s weapons program has generated greater cooperation between the United States and Japan and the United States and South Korea on missile defense, which China strongly opposes. North Korea’s activities have not yet served as a catalyst for Japan to pursue the nuclear option. But Japan’s threat perception and security posture could change more dramatically, particularly if the deterrence power of the U.S. military deteriorates for any reason.

Because North Korea has increased the speed and scope of its programs, the United States and South Korea have deployed the THAAD system to the peninsula. China expressed opposition to the deployment, including limiting trading relations with South Korea. Although China’s objection is driven more by political rather than security concerns, both factors influence China’s position. As we see it, the anti-missile defense system could undercut the deterrent effect of China’s nuclear and missile forces. China might believe the United States could expand the system to incorporate the first island chain, consisting of Japan and Taiwan and even the Philippines.  This could exacerbate China’s perception that a U.S.-led force not only is surrounding China but also is challenging its sovereignty and territorial claims in those areas. In response, China could make qualitative and quantitative advancements to its nuclear and missile forces; also it could use traditional and high technology political warfare military activities to intensify claims over Taiwan, in the South and East China Seas, as well as in the areas around the Korean Peninsula.

The rapidly changing situation on the peninsula has raised the issue of TNWs. Recently, South Korea’s defense minister suggested reviewing the redeployment of TNWs, which is a concern for China. Several years ago, a South Korean military officer commented in a discussion that the United States and South Korea should consider how to use TNWs on the peninsula. Their observations, coming years apart, suggest that TNWs have been a subject of debate in the military. South Korea’s president opposes the relocation of TNWs there (as well as the development of nuclear weapons). This means the government could perceive no real threat yet from its security environment and could not yet be concerned about the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrence guarantee. If and when that threat perception changes, the military and the government could revisit the issue.

A primary restraint on regional proliferation has been the U.S. alliance system, which includes alliances with Japan and South Korea and a deterrence guarantee for Taiwan. In our view, as long as the United States’ security guarantee remains reliable and its extended deterrence and nuclear umbrella remain credible, it reduces the probability that these states will pursue their own nuclear weapons capabilities. Membership to multilateral nonproliferation regimes also constrains their pursuits (Taiwan, however, is kept outside of these regimes). Although all three countries are prevented from nuclearization by U.S. policy, it intensifies North Korea’s siege mentality.

North Korea’s View

Surrounded by foes who pose a military threat and uninterested in being fully absorbed into China’s sphere of influence, North Korea perceives the country is under siege from the outside world. It faces a conventional military threat from, as one North Korean remarked, the United States, South Korea, and Japan. It also faces a perceived nuclear threat from these countries. The siege mentality drives the regime to advance its nuclear program and acquire nuclear-capable missiles to protect itself.

North Korea sees the Koreas as locked into a competition. Each side jockeys to demonstrate which side has the most superior socioeconomic and political systems. During my visit to the DMZ from the North side, discussions centered on two themes: ending the state of war between the North and the South through a treaty formalizing the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953; and emphasizing the North Korean flag on the North’s side flew higher on the flagpole than the South Korean flag on the South’s side. North Korea’s threat perception is partly shaped by this legitimacy war, which was active during the Cold War.

South Korea no longer views the two sides as locked in such a war. It has surpassed North Korea in terms of economic development, international prestige, and military capabilities. From its view, North Korea presents more of a political problem (and economic) than a military one, because its institutions are weak.

One view from North Korea is that the peninsula and Japan should be free of nuclear weapons capabilities. One North Korean contended, “if other countries can have nuclear weapons, we can have them too; when other countries give them up [their pursuit], we will give them up.” Another North Korean indicated that given the country’s history, Japan, not the United States, poses the greatest threat to its security. It is recognized that Japan could go nuclear in a short time frame. A few years ago, for example, one Chinese official indicated in a discussion that China knew Japan could go nuclear in less than six months. For North Korea (and China), Japan’s gradual rearmament, evolving security posture, as well as its capability to go nuclear in a short period of time pose a major challenge to peace and security in the region.

China’s North Korea Policy

China wants to avoid applying pressure on the North that could lead to outcomes that cross its bottom line.  Its top priority is safeguarding northeast China. It also wants the United States to not pursue unilateral actions against North Korea that could lead to an upheaval of a large number of refugees (China could manage an influx given the large number of ethnic Koreans already residing in northeast China, or it could create a safety zone).

Another driver of China’s North Korean policy is the U.S. military. In one interview, a Chinese expert stated that China is against any policy leading to the installation of a regime hostile to China on the other side of the Yalu River or pushing the U.S. military to the Yalu River boundary. North Korea serves as a valuable buffer between China and the U.S. military, which has 28,500 forces forwardly deployed in South Korea.

My interviews with several Chinese experts indicate that China partly maintains ties with North Korea to keep the U.S. military in check. China-North Korea ties might prevent the United States from launching an attack against North Korea or removing its ruling regime through other means. North Korea’s existence also stops the United States from stationing troops on China’s northeast border. One emerging Chinese expert observed in an interview that China-North Korea ties could be best described by the concept of 捆绑 (kunbang) or nuclear bundling, which means weaker nuclear powers form an alliance against a stronger nuclear power to prevent an attack.

Given Chinese history, China will not totally cut ties with North Korea based on pressure from the United States alone. The United States needs to understand China’s bottom line on North Korea to see how far it can push China on North Korea.

China also objects to the “long-arm jurisdiction” of U.S. nonproliferation laws partly because it was a target of these laws. Accordingly, the United States’ imposition of unilateral and secondary sanctions against North Korea and Chinese entities will not be entirely effective.

China’s uneven cooperation is also due to its limited influence with North Korea. As Colonel (Ret.) Bullard observes, for years North Korea has played Russia and China against each other. If China pulls out completely from North Korea, Russia will step in to fill the void. While traveling in North Korea, in fact, some people there indicated that Russia, not China, is the major supplier of energy.

Other countries and corporations also matter. Based on interviews in China and travels to North Korea, some African countries, as well as European corporations operating in China bust, or try to bust, sanctions. Reining them will require some assistance from China.

The UN Security Council passed another round of sanctions in September, indicating the U.S.-led effort to contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile program through multilateral institutions might be working. This approach will prove more effective in securing greater cooperation from China (and Russia).

China and Russia remain concerned the United States wants to pursue regime change, due in part to Washington’s past active engagement in regime change elsewhere. At the UNSC meeting, both Beijing and Moscow expressed hope the United States would not seek regime change, regime collapse, or an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, nor dispatch military forces north of the 38 parallel. They proposed a joint initiative calling for “dialogue and consultations,” a “double-freezing” of North Korea’s nuclear program and U.S.-South Korea military exercises, as well as “the creation of peace mechanisms on the peninsula.” But China’s “double-freezing” proposal – based on North Korea’s previous proposal – might not work given U.S. history, its treaty-bound regional security relationships, and past policies that included halting military exercises. According to Bullard,

…the U.S. has been acutely aware of the potential of a North Korean attack into South Korea as they did in the Korean War. Although China and North Korea claim South Korea started the war, today many do not dispute the facts. Since the U.S. went through that war with North Korea and China, the war remains a key factor in South Korean security. The “Team Spirit” exercises (and subsequent exercises) – an annual event reaching as far back as the early 1960s – are meant to reassure South Korea and North Korea that the U.S. is a reliable ally. When North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006 the belief was that North Korea was more threatening than with just conventional weapons. The key psychological aspect to deterrence and showing the U.S. as a reliable partner in the security relationship included keeping troops close to the DMZ, operating a Joint Headquarters in Seoul and using the exercises to make clear that the U.S. was reliable. Otherwise, it was believed that South Korea, based on some nuclear proliferation models, had the technological capability and could and would develop nuclear weapons if they perceived the U.S. was withdrawing in any way. Stopping of the military exercises would cause serious questioning by North Korea and South Korea that the U.S. would respond to a North Korean attack.

Going forward, the United States needs to combine low-profile military exercises and increased multilateral sanctions with a diplomatic strategy and an economic plan. The diplomatic strategy needs to identify the levels of political legitimacy and national security required by North Korea. It should factor in North Korea’s legitimacy war with South Korea, as well as its security concerns which include Japan.

The United States needs to understand China’s bottom line on North Korea. It should weigh the drivers shaping Chinese perception of and policy on North Korea, including the role of the U.S. military as well as the changing security posture of Japan. Greater attention needs to be given to other players who enable the conflict on the peninsula to continue. Otherwise the cycle of escalation consisting of North Korea’s unyielding pursuit of more advanced nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them could continue. That could lead to more proliferation by North Korea, as well as serve as a structural force driving changes in the regional security architecture, which will then further exacerbate the emerging security dilemma.

J.M. Norton, Ph.D. worked in China for nearly a decade, which included work with Chinese state-owned enterprises on nonproliferation issues. Dr. Norton has traveled to North Korea, as well as served as a Taiwan Fellow in Taipei.

Colonel (Ret) Monte R. Bullard, Ph.D. has more than 16 years of experience in Asia with the U.S. Army, including five years as a diplomat. He has been studying the China–Taiwan issue from an academic and operational perspective for over 40 years.

Both authors blog at the East Asia Peace & Security Initiative.