After nearly two months of outrageous North Korean threats and high tension on the Korean peninsula, the United States intends to rely much more heavily on China to achieve core American security goals in Northeast Asia — maintaining stability while containing the threats from Pyongyang.
In the face of real uncertainty about North Korea’s intentions over the past weeks, military measures taken by the Obama administration followed the overriding logic of deterrence. Those measures helped preserve stability in Korea and prevent the outbreak of war.
It is far better, after all, to remind North Korea of U.S. capabilities by flying B-52s, B-2 bombers and F-22 stealth fighters over South Korea than to order pre-emptive strikes that could lead to a new Korean conflict.
Given North Korea’s considerable military prowess — large stocks of chemical and biological weapons, more than 100,000 highly-trained special forces, extensive artillery and missiles deployed near the demilitarized zone, and an army of 1.2 million soldiers, not to mention a few nuclear weapons — the costs of all-out war to the U.S., South Korea, and possibly Japan, in lives, property and treasure are just too high.
In the event deterrence fails, the 10 million residents of Seoul would be among the first victims, with hundreds of thousands of casualties in the opening days of a new military conflict.
Looking back, as much as Americans despise North Korea and its leaders, the U.S. government has recognized for decades that pursuing a new war in Korea is not in America’s interest precisely because of the high costs — even if it ultimately results in “regime change.”
This calculation spurred the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to pursue engagement with North Korea. Diplomacy reached a high point in June 2008 when U.S. negotiators — led by Ambassador Christopher Hill and Ambassador Sung Kim — persuaded North Korea to shut down its reactor at Yongbyon that produced fissile material for weapons and blow up the reactor’s cooling tower to demonstrate Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization.
After the Obama administration came to power, however, diplomacy with North Korea fell into disrepute. The reason most often cited is the view expressed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2009 that the administration was tired of Pyongyang breaking deals in order to extort more economic aid, which amounted to “selling the same horse twice.”
A second reason embraced by the administration for rejecting diplomacy with North Korea was recently set forth by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who told CNN “if we think that through diplomacy, we’re going to see the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, then we’re nuts. We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Diplomacy is not going to solve this problem.”
Early on, the administration elevated its broad rejection of diplomacy to an official doctrine it called “strategic patience.” Its single effort to start negotiations with Pyongyang in the “Leap Day Accord” of February 2012 broke down after North Korea’s April 2012 missile test caused the administration to scuttle the deal.
As much as some U.S. policymakers and most American experts detest diplomacy with Pyongyang, they now face a pressing issue that has upended their earlier calculations. Short of mobilizing forces to prepare for an invasion of North Korea — which, in and of itself, could provoke a war — the U.S. is running out of effective military measures to strengthen its deterrence posture. In recognition of this fact, the administration has sought in recent days to significantly tone down its own strong rhetoric which it believes only feeds North Korea’s belligerence.
To achieve core U.S. security objectives in the region — maintaining stability while containing the threat from Pyongyang — the U.S. must rely on diplomacy once again.
The shape of this new US diplomacy is becoming increasingly clear: it will rely heavily on China. China is the one country with sufficient influence and experience to curb Pyongyang’s dangerous threats against South Korea, Japan and the United States. Beijing’s impatience with North Korea has continued to mount ever higher, leading China to support harsh new UN sanctions against Pyongyang, following its third nuclear test.
In late March, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye asked China’s new President Xi Jinping for Beijing’s support in bringing North Korea into negotiations. According to the South Korean Blue House, “Xi promised to strengthen communication with South Korea to achieve peace, stability and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, which he said benefits not only Korea but also China.”
Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings with Chinese leaders later this week will focus heavily on how China can restore stability to the Korean peninsula so as to contain Pyongyang while avoiding a new Korean War. This will require China to more stringently apply economic sanctions while holding out the prospect of political and economic benefits if North Korea ratchets down its threatening rhetoric and actions.
If the U.S. and China work together effectively to implement a common diplomatic strategy that addresses the dangers from North Korea, it would likely open up many new areas for Sino-American cooperation in President Obama’s second term. Beijing and President Xi will certainly welcome a new American policy that fosters closer relations with the United States and helps to overcome the dangerously confrontational China policy of Obama’s first term in office.
Donald Gross is senior associate at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a former State Department official, and author of The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China’s Rise and Avoid Another Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2013).
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