JPRI Critique Vol. XXII No. 4 (March 2016)
Agony Dance in the Asia Pacific: A Cycle of North Korean Provocations and Inadequate Regional Responses
Kongdan (Katy) Oh

Part I. Same Bed, Different Dreams: China and North Korea After the Nuclear Test
Part II. South Korea, First Responder after Pyongyang Rocket’s Red Glare
Part III. Korea Nuclear Opera: China Agrees to Sanction a Barbarian

Part I. Same Bed, Different Dreams: China and North Korea After the Nuclear Test

From the distant vantage point of western countries, China and North Korea look much alike. They are neighbors, one-party dictatorships, former communist societies, and Korean War allies. In short, practically bedfellows.

So whenever North Korea does something that alarms the international community, the call goes out for China to do something about it. Following the fourth and most recent North Korean nuclear test in January of this year, the world again appealed to China to rein in its troublesome neighbor.

North Korean provocations follow a script the actors know by heart. The play opens with an unpleasant North Korean surprise. China then assumes the role of the mature parent and calls on all parties to remain calm and resolve their differences through dialogue—although China is unable to resolve its own differences with North Korea through dialogue (as reflected in the sudden departure of the all-girl Moranbong Band from Beijing).

If North Korea’s provocation is nuclear, the United States, along with South Korea and Japan, once again vow never to tolerate a nuclear North Korea. North Korea basks in its renewed glory and insists that nuclear weapons are a necessary deterrent to American threats.

In Act Two, the United States calls on China to use its undeniable economic leverage to tame its neighbor. China in turn denies having any special leverage and says that the United States should stop threatening North Korea and open a dialogue. South Korea, Japan, and the United States make a show of responding to North Korea by resorting to stop-gap measures such as resuming loudspeaker broadcasts into North Korea or flying a B-52 bomber over the Korean peninsula.

By the time the curtain rises on Act Three, the original provocation has been largely forgotten by the news media. Lengthy deliberations begin in the United States, South Korea, Japan, the United Nations, and presumably in China to consider what additional sanctions are possible, although China and Russia will block any vigorous UN sanctions for fear of making the situation somehow worse. Just before the closing curtain, a few more sanctions are placed on North Korea, which has little trouble evading them through its usual connections with Chinese businesses.

What Does China Want?

But what does China really want? After decades of boasting that their friendship is as close as “lips and teeth,” China and North Korea still aren’t dreaming the same dream. The North Korean dream, which is actually the dream of the Kim family because the country is run for its benefit, is that the international community will unconditionally accept the leadership of whichever Kim family member happens to be in power. China’s dream is for North Korea to transform itself into a Little China with a developed economy and a strong party-led government that is not necessarily headed by a member of the Kim family.

The most obvious reason North Korea can’t accept China’s dream is that it doesn’t necessarily include a Kim. Moreover, North Koreans don’t trust China any more than they trust any other country. As for the personal fortunes of Kim Jong-un, he is the third generation of a fabulously wealthy ruling family that faces no competition for power. Unless he is deprived of his wealth by China, he is unmotivated to make any significant changes.

For its part, China can’t accept the North Korean dream first because China can’t bring the international community to accept North Korea. Moreover, having a neighbor who is committed to a “military-first” policy is hardly a guarantee for long-term regional stability. And if that neighboring country must be led by a dictator, China would prefer that it be a Chinese-style “responsible” dictator rather than one of the unpredictable roguish dictators of the Kim family who have ruled North Korea, starting with the founding Kim who dragged China into a costly war.

The Devil It Knows…

So the dreams are only dreams, and China continues to live with the devil it knows rather than taking a chance on triggering instability that could beget an even bigger devil. And the United States does the same, for its “strategic patience” policy toward North Korea favors a change in the regime over time rather than a forced change of the regime. China at least has the option of changing North Korea, something that the United States, with little direct influence over North Korea, seems unable to do.

And yet, the “American dream” is a great drawing card for people around the world, and could become a dream of the North Korean people if they became more familiar with it. U.S. support for more active information campaigns targeted at the North Korean people, who may one day wrest control of their country from the Kim regime, would be a worthwhile and peaceful means of eventually replacing the North Korean dream with one that is less likely to turn into a nightmare for everyone.

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Part II. South Korea, First Responder after Pyongyang Rocket’s Red Glare

Against the wishes of the international community, the North Koreans launched another long-range rocket in early February, hard on the heels of their fourth nuclear test. So far there is no consensus on what, if anything, the world should do about this, other than to condemn it.

In the United States, Congress has voted for a new round of economic sanctions to be sent to President Obama. The Japanese have announced new sanctions and are dusting off a suite of older sanctions that were lifted in 2014 to facilitate discussions with North Korea about the fate of abducted Japanese citizens.

China, for its part, has a “different definition of more serious [sanction] measures” and points to the “seriousness” of its dispatch of a senior diplomat to Pyongyang, who subsequently failed to dissuade the Kim regime from launching its rocket. The Chinese are willing to send a message of displeasure to Kim Jong-un, in case he has not already gotten the message, but they do not want to cause the regime any material pain for fear of destabilizing North Korea.

The United Nations is discussing new sanctions, subject to the veto power of China and Russia, even while a UN standing committee reports that previous UN sanctions have been easily evaded.

South Korea, which is more exposed to North Korea’s wrath than anyone else, has taken the lead in expressing its unhappiness in a material way. In addition to ramping up its border broadcasts into the North, pushing a North Korea human rights bill that has been stalled in the National Assembly for years, and planning for the largest ever joint military exercises with the United States this spring, President Park has suspended operations in the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The anomalous industrial enclave just north of the DMZ employs some 54,000 North Korean laborers who make products in South Korean-owned factories.

The Kaesong Dream

Through bad times and worse times, the complex, opened in late 2004, has kept operating, except in 2013 when the North Korean government pulled its workers out for five months to protest the annual U.S.-South Korea spring military exercises. After that closure, the two sides pledged not to close the industrial park under any circumstances. South Korea has now breached that agreement.

Although operations at Kaesong have merely been “suspended,” it is highly unlikely that the factories will ever reopen, just as the South Korean tourist facilities at Kumgang Mountain, just north of the DMZ on the east side of the peninsula, never reopened after a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean soldier in 2008. Nor is there any prospect of a resumption of planning for a North Korean pipeline and railroad to connect China and Russia with South Korea. At Kaesong, the North Korean government will lose about $100 million in annual fees, taxes, and wages, and the South Koreans will lose all the facilities, which have been “frozen” under the jurisdiction of the North Korean army.

In fact, the monetary loss is not of great significance. In South Korea’s huge economy Kaesong is virtually invisible, and it accounts for only about 1% of North Korea’s annual trade, most of which goes instead to China.

But the symbolic loss is huge because Kaesong was the last link between the two Koreas. South Korea had always hoped that by demonstrating its good faith, it might prepare its northern neighbor for the day when its economy and society would merge with South Korea’s. Now the dream is over, at least for now.

In China’s Lap

President Park had hoped to gradually build up trust between the two Koreas by such projects as Kaesong. Now the trust seems to have evaporated and a new policy will have to be formulated. North Korea is thrown to the mercies of the Chinese, who would prefer that their backward neighbor open itself to other countries to lessen the burden on China and create a measure of stability in the region.

To make matters worse for China, South Korea has also announced that it plans to go ahead with the acquisition of the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense) anti-missile system that the Chinese strongly object to. For this turn of events, the Chinese have no one to blame but themselves, since they have failed to rein in their obstreperous neighbor. In the years ahead, a U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance might harden against China and North Korea, moving China closer to a Cold War environment—just as Russia has found itself sliding into a new Cold War in Europe.

The UN has yet to begin serious debate on steps to stop North Korea from further development of its nuclear and missile programs. Despairing of reaching an international consensus, South Korea has taken its own first step, soon to be backed up by the United States and Japan. To judge by recent history, the Kim regime will retaliate against South Korea in its own good time, further alienating itself from its neighbors and the international community, and presenting another challenge to peace on the Korean peninsula.

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Part III. Korea Nuclear Opera: China Agrees to Sanction a Barbarian

For thousands of years the Chinese have thought of themselves as inhabiting the very center of the civilized world.

Foreigners were barbarians. The Chinese were satisfied to live in isolation from that inferior world, and only wanted the barbarians to leave them alone. In order to keep peace in their neighborhood, Chinese emperors would arrange tributary relations with neighboring states, who would acknowledge their supremacy in return for their protection. To prevent barbarian powers from ganging up on China, the Chinese would try to play off one barbarian against another. In the nineteenth century, Chinese scholar Wei Yuan referred to this long-standing balance-of-powers foreign policy as yiyizhiyi: “using barbarians to control barbarians.”

China’s “Barbarian” Neighbors

Today, China’s closest neighbors to the east are the two Koreas, neither of which can be called a tributary state. The South Korean and Chinese economies are mutually dependent. In 2014, 6.1 million Chinese traveled to South Korea for shopping and entertainment, and 4 million Koreans chose China as their favorite tourism destination. South Koreans admire the economic progress Chinese have made and recognize their similar cultures, although they view China warily, especially in regard to China’s territorial claims on the East Sea. South Korean and Chinese leaders meet regularly.

North Korea, immediately bordering on China, has been a perennial problem for the Chinese. The two countries share similar political systems, although North Korea’s is dynastically inclined, and they were allies in the Korean War. However, North Korea’s economy has become almost totally dependent on China’s and the North Koreans are more suspicious than friendly toward the Chinese. Since assuming power in 2011, North Korea’s leader has never had a summit meeting with the Chinese leader. The Chinese are particularly upset that the North Koreans keep provoking their neighbors, especially with weapons of mass destruction, thus threatening the peace of the neighborhood.

For China, the only thing worse than having a trouble-making neighbor is having an American neighbor. North Korea may be a nuisance to China, but the United States is often seen as a threat. If North Korea collapses, unless China intervenes (against South Korean objections) it will fall into the hands of South Korea, an American ally. China entered the Korean War to keep Americans away from their border, and today China tolerates North Korea for the same reason.

Controlling the Barbarians

How is China to deal with North Korea’s provocations, especially its nuclear provocations? China’s North Korea policy of verbal persuasion has not succeeded in slowing Pyongyang’s buildup of weapons of mass destruction. Even worse, after Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear and missile tests, South Korea has decided to consider putting an American THAAD anti-missile battery on its soil, a move that China considers to be a grave threat to its own security.

Rather than blaming North Korea for its provocations, China blames the United States for threatening North Korea; in other words, blaming one barbarian for the actions of another. China’s proposed solution to the North Korea problem is for the United States and North Korea, along with South Korea, Japan, and even Russia, to peacefully “negotiate” with North Korea.

Presumably, the idea would be that if the United States agrees to sign a peace treaty with North Korea, withdraw its military forces from the Korean peninsula, and keep its nuclear weapons out of the Western Pacific (North Korea’s demands), then North Korea would agree to at least curtail its nuclear and missile programs. For China, an added benefit of such an agreement would be that without a threatening North Korea, there would also be less need for a U.S.-South Korea-Japan military alliance, and less concern in Beijing about being encircled by barbarians.

Moreover, China would presumably preside over negotiations at the resumed Six Party Talks, thus gaining stature as a senior statesman who is above all this neighborhood squabbling. With more attention focused on the North Korea problem, less notice might be made of China’s moves into the East China Sea.

So far, neither North Korea nor the United States has been sufficiently motivated to resume negotiations. The United States is waiting for North Korea to make a substantial commitment to end its nuclear weapons program, and North Korea insists that any talks must be about mutual denuclearization. In the absence of movement toward a solution, and with the international community angered by North Korea’s latest moves, China has decided to put more pressure on North Korea by voting to support a fifth round of UN sanctions.

China’s Dilemma

These sanctions, severe as they may first appear, grant Beijing wide discretion in how much pressure it wants to put on its neighbor. North Korea’s front door to the world opens on the Chinese border. The United States, South Korea, and the rest of the international community will have to look to China for success in reining in North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. On this issue, China is once again the center of the civilized world.

It is difficult to find anyone who believes that these latest sanctions will persuade the North Korean regime to relinquish its nuclear weapons, or even dissuade it from continuing to develop more weapons and long-range missiles on which to place them. Until that regime is unseated, it will almost certainly continue to pursue the “military-first” policy it adopted back in the 1960s under its founding Kim.

But if the third generation of the Kim family goes, North Korea may quickly fall into chaos, inviting the kind of international intervention that the Chinese fear. So how hard China should push its neighbor is a decision that requires the most delicate judgment. Hardly surprising then that China wishes the barbarians would solve this problem amongst themselves.

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Dr. Kongdan (Katy) Oh., is a Senior Asia Specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She was formerly a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Political Science Department of the RAND Corporation. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Board of Directors of the United States Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, and co-founder and former co-director of The Korea Club of Washington, D.C. She received her B.A. at Sogang University and an M.A. at Seoul National University. She subsequently earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation advisor was the renowned scholar, Professor Chalmers Johnson, and on his seventieth birthday she co-organized a Festschrift conference in San Diego. She has authored, co-authored, and edited eight books, published more than 30 research monographs, and numerous articles and book chapters. Her most recent book is The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, Second Edition (April 2015). She is currently working on a new book comparing the strategic cultures of China, Japan and Korea. She speaks Chinese, Japanese, and her native Korean. These commentaries on the North Korea nuclear/missile issue originally appeared in Asia Times: Part I on January 28, Part II on February 17, and Part III on March 11 of this year. We at JPRI are grateful for permission to publish this series.

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