America’s Comforting—but Wrong—Notion About North Korea

There are limits to the leverage available over Pyongyang. 

Defying an eleventh hour plea from China, North Korea test-fired another long-range rocket on February 7. This comes on the heels of the country’s fourth nuclear test in January. Leading U.S. newspapers and analysts have concluded that President Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea has bombed. It is time, they argue, to ratchet up pressure not only on the North, but also on Pyongyang’s Chinese enablers.

On the failure of U.S. policy to stop North Korea’s relentless drive toward the acquisition of both a nuclear weapons arsenal and long-range missiles, there can be no argument. Most experts doubt whether Pyongyang can successfully deliver a nuclear-tipped missile on an American city, but the North is steadily heading toward that capability.

Yet many of the policy prescriptions making the rounds are based upon two miscalculations: one, that China contains enormous leverage over North Korea, if only it would wield it; and two, that Washington is well placed to impose a considerable price on China if Beijing does not rein in its unruly neighbor. Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions is valid.

Rightly recognizing Pyongyang’s dependence on China, successive U.S. administrations, including the current one, have sought to outsource their North Korea policy to Beijing. China provides the North with the majority of its imports, including all-important food and energy supplies. Chinese banks facilitate Pyongyang’s dealings with the rest of the world. Beijing shields Pyongyang from even more onerous international sanctions and sidesteps those now in place.

Yet to conclude that if China only put the squeeze on North Korea, Pyongyang would have no option but to surrender flies in the face of both logic and history. It seems clear that the despotic regime of Kim Jong-un, obsessed with “American hostility,” believes that a nuclear deterrent is all that stands between survival and annihilation. Abandoning its nuclear program, therefore, would constitute an act of suicide.

The North has demonstrated time and again its willingness to accept pain rather than to buckle to what it regards as impossible demands. This is not surprising. One need only recall U.S. experiences with “friends” in South Vietnam, El Salvador, and South Korea and Taiwan in their pre-democratic days, as well as adversaries such as Cuba, Qadhafi’s Libya and the junta’s Myanmar to see that even weak states can successfully resist U.S. pressure if the cost of compliance is deemed too great. During the Cold War, the mighty Soviet Union ran into the same recalcitrance from its “socialist brothers” in Eastern Europe, North Vietnam and, yes, North Korea.

Moreover, the Kim dynasty has linked its prestige and achievements so closely to nuclear weapons that walking away from a program blessed by three generations of the Kim family would exact incalculable but considerable domestic political costs, even for a regime as autocratic as this one, and stain the national honor.

In short, it is highly probable, absent military intervention from the Chinese, which nobody advocates, and which is not on the table, that Pyongyang would be prepared to resist even intense pressure from China.  Claims about “Chinese leverage” are specious.

In fact, the Chinese have repeatedly shown that their calculation of the national interest will substantially limit how far they will go to pressure the North. Beijing’s fear of instability in North Korea and its aversion to a unified Korean peninsula closely allied to the United States place checks on how hard it is prepared to squeeze, and in a perverse way give Pyongyang leverage over China.

In addition, in light of the interdependence of U.S. and Chinese interests, the way in which the two economies are dependent upon each other, and the ease of retaliation should one try to blackmail the other, casual talk about threatening Beijing to take steps it has little likelihood of taking, and which even if taken would not produce the desired results in North Korea, is exceedingly dangerous.

No doubt, “strategic patience” has run its course. Tougher sanctions, designed specifically to hit Kim and his inner circle, are now in order.

But we should be under no illusions that new sanctions will force North Korea to give up its nuclear aspirations. Nor should we assume that U.S. pressure can force China, at a price we can bear, to lean so heavily on Pyongyang that the regime will either cave or collapse.

At the end of the day, tougher sanctions and other pressures will need to be supplemented by renewed efforts to find a diplomatic solution out of this impasse. It seems extremely unlikely that inducements and reassurances will entice the North to give up the programs in which it has invested so heavily. Probably the best we can hope for are verifiable constraints on further nuclear and missile development.

But first we must rid ourselves of the comforting but wrong-headed notion that we can coerce China into coercing North Korea into taking steps that the Kim regime would regard as suicidal. Even America’s vast power does not confer that much leverage.

Robert M. Hathaway, a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, is writing a book on leverage and power.

Image: Creative Commons/U.S. Navy.