On September 3, 2017, an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude sent tremors across the globe, caused not by a buckling tectonic plate, but by North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. As tensions in the region continue to escalate, neither the United States nor North Korea seem inclined to defuse the explosive situation, with President Trump refusing to rule out the military option and Kim Jong-Un promising massive retaliation. The international community has repeatedly called for China to utilize its economic influence over North Korea to end the nuclear threat, but recent steps by China such as cutting off coal, iron, and lead imports from North Korea have proven to be ineffective in curtailing North Korean brinksmanship. With economic solutions seemingly ineffective and military solutions unacceptably devastating, what alternatives remain on the table?
To devise a feasible solution, policymakers must first understand the reason North Korea places such value on nuclear armaments. This can be traced back to Kim Il-Sung’s juche philosophy, which calls for North Korea to achieve political self-determination, economic self-sufficiency, and military self-reliance. In accordance with the principle of military self-reliance, North Korea has always maintained massive conventional forces, currently possessing the fourth largest army in the world. However, the chillingly efficient destruction of Iraq’s similarly massive conventional forces in 2003 by an American-led coalition demonstrated just how meaningless conventional numbers could be when matched against a technologically superior foe.
When the United States then proceeded in 2011 to overthrow Gaddafi, who had renounced Libya’s nuclear weapon program in 2003, it again reinforced the notion that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter American intervention. In Kim Jong-Un’s lifetime, he has seen Hussein die by capital punishment and Gaddafi die by stabbing, with both leaders meeting their ends after the United States effortlessly carved a path through their conventional forces. Having no desire to share their fate, it is unsurprising that Kim Jong-Un has been unwilling to give up nuclear weapons even when large economic carrots and sticks were applied. With this in mind, it seems that there are two paths to breaking the deadlock: first, by fostering a regime-threatening crisis within North Korea that can only be resolved by giving up nuclear weapons, or second, by offering the Kim regime a means to ensure its security against the United States and other perceived threats that obviates its need for nuclear weapons.
The first path is what policymakers today seem focused on. The logic is that if the world cuts off major sources of funding and supplies to North Korea, then the regime will be unable to keep its population placated and fed, and North Korea will be forced to negotiate with the world to prevent its people from rebelling or starving. China is currently “North Korea’s only economic backer of any importance,” importing a variety of raw materials and sending back food, manufactured goods, and currency. Thus, if China undertakes further steps such as ending the import of clothing, minerals, and seafood, shutting down North Korean restaurants in Chinese cities, deporting the workers, and cracking down on Chinese enterprises doing business with North Korean entities, there may be a chance North Korea steps down.
China has shown a willingness to pursue this path by supporting the newest round of United Nations sanctions, which bans textile exports and natural gas shipments to North Korea, caps crude oil imports from North Korea, and bars countries from issuing new work permits to citizens of North Korea. However, imposing economic pain is not equivalent to creating a regime-threatening economic crisis. As Zhao Tong from the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy stated in an interview with The Guardian in July, “You can’t simply cut off all the resources for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs only by stopping North Korean laborers from working in other countries. That is not something that is decisive.”
Unfortunately, China has not shown the willingness to create the kind of economic crisis that could actually break the deadlock. For one, China has no desire to lose the strategic buffer between China and the American troops stationed in South Korea that North Korea’s continued existence provides. Furthermore, China has no interest in dealing with the massive wave of refugees that a total collapse of Kim Jong-Un’s regime would bring. For example, China opposed an alternative United Nations resolution that sought to completely cut off North Korea’s access to crude oil instead of just capping it. Thus, even though many Chinese officials are beginning to view North Korea as a major liability, China will not go so far as to precipitate the collapse of Kim Jong-Un’s regime, and the world will see little success in half-heartedly pursuing this first path of crisis resolution.
The second path, offering a security guarantee against the United States just as solid as nuclear weapons, seems on first glance to be infeasible. How could any military technology transfer or American diplomatic promise offer a true guarantee against an American invasion? But with the rise in Chinese economic and military power, a security guarantee from China could credibly deter American military action. China already proved the value of its word to North Korea in 1950 when Mao sent Chinese divisions across the Yalu River even after Stalin failed to provide the promised air support, so Kim Jong-Un has reason to believe China does not make empty promises.
North Korea is well aware that China does not wish to see Kim Jong-Un’s regime overthrown, and that it is in China’s best interest to peacefully foster regional stability, which bolsters China’s dependability. Technically, China is already obliged to come to North Korea’s aid in the event it encounters unprovoked aggression under the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, but China’s commitment has come into question due to its recent support of international actions against North Korea. Policymakers worldwide must recognize that the less North Korea trusts China, the more it will lean on its nuclear weapons to guarantee regime survival, and the higher tensions will rise as North Korea seeks ever more destructive weapons. With this in mind, China’s half-hearted steps to ratchet up economic pressure on North Korea are not only ineffective, but actually counterproductive to resolving the crisis.
If China were to instead make a clear commitment to defending North Korea, with nuclear weapons if necessary, then Kim Jong-Un may feel secure enough to deescalate the situation. Even with this arrangement, it is unlikely that Kim Jong-Un will fully give up nuclear weapons, since he lacks absolute trust in China. However, a security guarantee from China may enable North Korea to cease additional testing of nuclear weapons, slow development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, tone down its aggressive rhetoric, and peacefully end the crisis.
Indeed, such a deal faces many diplomatic hurdles. The broader implications of recognizing yet another nuclear power not party to the Nonproliferation Treaty are distasteful, and could be damaging to the fight against nuclear proliferation. However, time for a peaceful solution is running short, as North Korean and American brinkmanship is bringing the world ever closer to nuclear war. Feasible solutions are few and far between. The Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, declared in July that, “[the United States and North Korea] hold the primary responsibility to keep things moving, to start moving in the right direction, not China.” Even if he is right that the United States and North Korea bear historical responsibility to resolve this crisis, it is the world that will bear the devastating future consequences if China fails to act.
Jakob Lengacher is a research assistant at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Victoria Liu is a student at the Webb Schools. She can be contacted at email@example.com.