Kim Calls the Shots

Foreign Policy (April 2009)

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Passive U.S. policy is no cure for North Korean brinkmanship. Time to put a call in to China.

Is North Korea dictating U.S. security policy in Northeast Asia? As Pyongyang ratchets up tensions in the region on a near-daily basis, now preparing for a rocket launch, it is a fair question. The Obama administration appears to be merely reacting, allowing events to move from bad to worse. The offensive plays all seem to be coming from North Korea’s side as the failed state misguidedly uses its brinkmanship tactics to gain international attention and maximize its negotiating leverage.

Don’t get me wrong. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was pitch-perfect in his comments last Sunday on the possibility of a North Korean satellite launch. He said the United States would only try to shoot down the North Korean rocket if it threatened the United States. He recognized that the launch is best seen as a cover for Pyongyang’s test of a long-range Taepo dong missile that could theoretically hit Alaska or Hawaii.

But the overall direction of U.S. policy, in the event of a rocket launch, is clearly toward denouncing North Korea yet again in the U.N. Security Council and attempting to impose further sanctions. Those U.N. pronouncements will have little if any impact, except perhaps to trigger Pyongyang’s indefinite withdrawal from the six party talks on the elimination of its nuclear program.

Washington is caught up in a rhetorical back-and-forth led by Pyongyang at a time when the United States could be using all its diplomatic clout to head off North Korea’s launch or to move ahead in the Six Party talks. The way things are going, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another long impasse in the negotiations of the kind that followed North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006. Even a complete breakdown of these critical talks looks possible.

And let’s remember, the six party talks are not a favor granted by the United States to North Korea. These negotiations are in the best interests of the United States and have already achieved significant progress in disabling North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon — progress that could easily be reversed, if relations deteriorate.

What to do? Realize that the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations recognized this fact, but they failed to convince China to use the full strength of its leverage on North Korea. Despite China’s protests that it has limited influence, North Korea relies heavily on China for energy and trade. On occasion, Beijing has provided major incentives to Pyongyang, and it has also taken coercive actions against North Korea when China felt the circumstances warranted.

The real problem, however, is not China’s potential sway with North Korea. The United States simply has not done enough heavy lifting of its own with China. This year more than ever, with economic crisis and domestic political concerns at the top of China’s policy agenda, the U.S. government will have to exert every effort to persuade China to put its full weight behind the six party talks.

In fact, China has much to gain from the success of the six party talks, something that the Obama administration should consider pointing out. A strong effort from China in the nuclear negotiations could form the basis for a new era in U.S.-China relations. Rather than strategic competition — the kind that inspires tense encounters between U.S. and Chinese military vessels in the South China Sea or U.S. reconnaissance planes hugging the Chinese coast — the two countries could move towards a truly amicable security relationship in coming years.

By contrast, if the six party talks fail, and serious instability over Kim Jong Il’s succession takes hold in North Korea, events could compel China to send troops across the Yalu River to stabilize the border region. South Korean forces, with U.S. support, could justifiably move across the DMZ to head off a threatened humanitarian emergency. The alternative to cooperation on the six party talks and other regional security issues could be a truly confrontational military situation — not just with North Korea, but between the United States and China.

It will clearly take more than behind-the-curve U.S. denunciations of North Korea’s impending rocket launch to achieve U.S. policy goals in Northeast Asia. A critical first step for the United States would be improving security relations with Beijing.

Donald G. Gross is adjunct fellow of Pacific Forum CSIS, a nonprofit foreign-policy research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.