North Korea’s test-launch of two mid-range ballistic missiles in late March, and its recent threat to conduct a new nuclear test, should not come as a surprise. Following the collapse of the February 2007 nuclear disarmament agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, the Hermit Kingdom has fervently endeavored to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
For years, conventional wisdom has dictated that the purpose of North Korean nuclear weapons is to deter the United States from challenging the stability of the regime. However, North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons and missile programs, as well as its nuclear tests, recently seem to convey a message not only to Washington but also to Beijing. The message is twofold. Firstly, Pyongyang does not trust China’s commitment to the Kim regime. Secondly, North Korea wants to remain under the Chinese diplomatic and economic umbrella by clarifying that the consequences to China of a regime collapse in North Korea may be more severe than Beijing estimates.
Two related issues continue to frustrate the leadership in Pyongyang. In the past two decades, as Pyongyang has become more dependent on Chinese economic support, China has turned into a major trading partner of not only the United States but South Korea as well. Moreover, in recent years, a growing number of voices in Chinese diplomatic and academic circles have described North Korea more as a problematic burden than a strategic asset. These circumstances cast a dark shadow over Pyongyang’s strategic alliance with Beijing.
A few recent events provide a glimpse into the deterioration of China-North Korea relations. In the wake of China’s futile attempt to prevent North Korea from conducting a third nuclear test in February 2013, Beijing supported a new round of UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang and has partially implemented them. Meanwhile, in June 2013, South Korean president Park Geun-hye conducted a high-profile state visit to China, where she held a summit meeting with President Xi Jinping (who assumed office in late 2012). In Pyongyang, where face-saving diplomacy is tremendously important, President Xi’s invitation to Park was plausibly perceived as a blatant affront to Kim Jong-un, who has not yet met with the Chinese president. North Korea, for its part, has openly accused Beijing of being an accomplice to the crimes of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle who was executed in December 2013.
Aware of the bad blood between Beijing and Pyongyang, Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute has suggested that the United States should induce China to solve the North Korean conundrum by allowing Beijing to establish dominance over a unified and nuclear-free peninsula. The first stage in Carpenter’s plan requires China to replace the Kim regime with a more pragmatic and manageable government in Pyongyang. Although the Obama administration is far from adopting Carpenter’s recommendations, Beijing may not necessarily require an inducement to carry out the first stage of his plan.
As Pyongyang ponders the question of whether its strategic value to China is diminishing and the ominous consequences of being neglected by Beijing, it must ensure China’s loyalty in order to survive. Setting up a formidable and credible nuclear force is perhaps the only way through which Pyongyang could tie a Gordian knot between the future of the Kim regime and that of a no-longer-trustworthy China.
The question for the United States, then, is how to stop Pyongyang from developing its fledgling nuclear deterrence capabilities into a force that would provide it with the option of bringing calamity upon the region anytime it feels existentially threatened. Essentially, Washington should realize that Chinese diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to capitulate to American disarmament demands would be counterproductive. The key to a breakthrough vis-à-vis Pyongyang is building trust, not only in North Korea-United States relations but in China-North Korea relations as well.
In order to achieve this, Beijing needs to persuade Pyongyang that it is committed to the survivability of the Kim regime. This message should be conveyed through high-level personal diplomacy channels. One of the first steps could be inviting Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing. Washington, for its part, should not expect Pyongyang to accept an agreement leading to North Korean disarmament within a short period of time. A more realistic solution to which Pyongyang could agree would be an arrangement in which North Korea would freeze its nuclear program at its current stage, start dismantling it after a decade, and complete that process within five years. Additionally, Pyongyang would be also required to cooperate with Beijing by implementing, without delay, economic reforms similar to those initiated by China in the late 1970s.
Such reforms should be followed by growing trade with Pyongyang in the form of American, Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese investments in North Korean special economic zones. These investments would provide Pyongyang with tangible economic incentives and reassure the Kim regime that Washington and Beijing are not interested in replacing it. They would also provide Pyongyang with much to lose if it decides to renege on its dismantlement obligations.
Critics may claim that such an arrangement would leave a limited nuclear arsenal in the hands of North Korea for at least a decade, therefore undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nevertheless, it would prevent the development of a much worse contingency in which North Korea would accumulate a massive nuclear arsenal as well as perfect its weaponization and delivery capabilities.