Why Korean Reunification is in China’s Strategic National Interest

by Jamie Metzl / 22 July 2017 / ChinaFile

North Korea’s July 4 launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile has highlighted once again both the extent to which Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and aggressive behavior is destabilizing the Asia Pacific region and the relative impotence of efforts to date designed to respond. Although North Korean nuclear weapons seem primarily designed to ensure regime survival, these weapons will, once fully deliverable, provide Pyongyang with the almost unlimited ability to blackmail its neighbors, primarily China. If China’s leaders do not want to fall victim to North Korean blackmail, they will need to ask themselves hard questions about the costs and benefits of Beijing’s longstanding relationship with Pyongyang and reposition China accordingly.

It is easy to imagine what a reformed North Korea not threatening its population or its neighbors might look like. That country would close its labor camps and protect the rights of its citizens, open its borders to trade and new ideas, work with neighboring countries to enhance peace, security, and stability in the region, halt its incendiary propaganda, stand down its aggressive military posture, eliminate its nuclear weapons, and rejoin the family of nations working together to build a better future for all.

The current leadership in Pyongyang, however, is doing exactly the opposite. It oppresses its own citizens in what a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has called a “crime against humanity,” remains hermetically closed to new ideas and opportunities, threatens its neighbors, and launches unprovoked attacks. Its nuclear weapons program is racing toward full, deliverable weaponization that will super-charge an arms race in Asia, multiply Pyongyang’s ability to occasionally blackmail other countries, increase the likelihood of a future nuclear accident, and sow regional instability.

Although North Korean nuclear weaponization is bad for the world, it is seen as beneficial by North Korea’s leaders themselves. From their perspective, nuclear weapons enhance their own leadership prestige, build leverage in international relations, provide insurance against the types of foreign intervention faced by Libya and Ukraine after giving up their nuclear weapons, and increase the cost of a potential coup d’état. For these reasons, North Korea is racing to develop a deliverable nuclear weapons capability as quickly as possible.

Because North Korea’s leaders are structurally xenophobic, ideologically dependent on maintaining a hyper-paranoid state of war, feel they will be safer with nuclear weapons than without them, and have a long and consistent history of non-compliance with arms reduction agreements they have signed, no amount of cajoling or engagement is likely to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. There is simply no assurance the United States, South Korea, and/or Japan could conceivably offer capable of changing Pyongyang’s calculus. The only way North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons is if its leaders come to believe the cost of maintaining nuclear weapons is greater than the cost of giving them up.

Other than a change of leadership within North Korea or an extremely improbable and almost certainly ineffective and counter-productive U.S. military strike, the only likely means of driving this perceptual change among the North Korean leadership would be by ratcheting up sanctions and other non-military coercive measures to the point of undermining their grip on power in the absence of denuclearization. Although rounds of sanctions have been imposed via the United Nations, these sanctions have not been capable of reaching this potential pain threshold because China has not been willing to go along.

China’s current relationship with North Korea has both historic and strategic underpinnings. North Korea would not exist but for China’s intervention in the Korean War, North Korea is China’s only treaty ally, and Mao famously called the two countries “as close as lips and teeth.” Today, North Korea provides China a buffer between itself and U.S.-allied South Korea, a tool for preventing the reunification of the Korean peninsula, and a cheap source of natural resources and labor. In exchange, China provides North Korea with 90 percent of its energy and most of the food going to its military, services cash transfers to Pyongyang via Chinese financial institutions, and keeps the North Korean economy afloat via trade and access to Chinese markets. Without this support and China’s protection in watering down U.N. sanctions and other forms of international pressure, North Korea would likely collapse in short order. Read more…

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