Why the United States Needs North Korea to Stay Nuclear

June 24, 2018 Topic: undefined Region: Asia Tags: North KoreaNuclearMissileWarDonald Trump

Why the United States Needs North Korea to Stay Nuclear

A nuclear North Korea is not a threat, but an ideal stabilizer.

It is important for American policymakers to remember that a significant reason for the Sino-Soviet split was the Chinese fear of ever increasing Soviet influence and military presence on Chinese territory. North Korea likely fears China for the same reasons, especially given its history of colonization and foreign occupation. North Korea has not had foreign military forces on its territory since Mao pulled out all Chinese troops in 1958. This was due to North Korea’s nationalistic ideology and aversion to Soviet and Chinese influence in the wake of the August incident—which Kim Il-Sung believed was a plot to overthrow him. Kim Jong-un may also have perceived a similar threat shortly after taking power. The execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim’s half-brother, were likely due to their connections with China.

North Korea’s fear of Chinese control is one area where North Korean and American interests of containing China actually align. Moreover, North Korea would prefer to have the ability to hedge between two superpowers to get the best deal, which is only possible by reducing China’s monopoly on economic leverage over North Korea. In the same way that a nuclear China was useful in containing the USSR in the 1970s, North Korea may be helpful in containing China today. A tacit agreement to allow the DPRK to retain a minimal but credible nuclear deterrent is advantageous to U.S. interests in that it maintains a source of friction in Sino-North Korean relations. By possessing nukes, North Korea will be more independent from Chinese influence and can turn away from China. Thus, a nuclear North Korea would be a viable solution to the imbalance of power on the Korean peninsula after the end of the Cold War. Finally, North Korea would also benefit the long-term U.S. strategy of containing Chinese expansionism. This China containment policy can only be successful if the United States is willing to politically and economically engage with North Korea.

In a 1967 article in Foreign Affairs, Richard Nixon stated that “Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.” If Nixon, along with Henry Kissinger’s support, could understand the strategic value of engaging a former adversary with newly acquired nuclear weapons, perhaps policymakers can see the strategic value of doing so with North Korea today.

Hongyu Zhang is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, and can be reached at [email protected]. His research focuses on nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, and Chinese foreign policy.

Kevin Wang is a Research Assistant at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs (CISA) for Nuclear Security and Nonproliferation Issues. He can be reached at [email protected].

Disclaimer: This article reflects the personal views of the authors. The article does not represent the positions of the institutions in which they work. All errors and oversights remain their own.

Image: A man walks past a TV broadcasting a news report on the dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, in Seoul, South Korea, May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji