The North Korea Conundrum

In Diplomacy on May 26, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

The rapidly escalating crisis begun by the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan on 26 March by a North Korean submarine presents interested powers with a difficult set of choices. It seems increasingly clear that, while there is public agreement that some sort of retaliatory response is necessary, there are few good options for doing so. The announced joint anti-submarine exercises between the U.S. and South Korea offer the prospect for some good news footage, and perhaps a means to move these forces to a higher state of readiness without being overtly aggressive, but do little to resolve the underlying problem. Similarly, cutting economic and diplomatic ties with the North means nothing without the full inclusion of China, which has provided the lifeline by which North Korea has managed to endure for this long.

A closer examination of the objectives of the various involved powers suggests that little will change. It is not in the strategic interests of any of these countries to go to war, the successful prosecution of which is likely the only method by which anything approaching permanent resolution is possible. The continuation of the division of Korea, the tensions between North and South, and the relationship between the two Great Powers most closely involved – China and the United States – preserves the status quo in the region. While this is not desired by the U.S. or the South Koreans, they do not hold the strategic initiative; the North Koreans do, and for them the status quo represents the best of a very poor set of options.

For North Korea, the maintenance of tension with external threats is necessary for the preservation of the regime. Like all totalitarian states, the government identifies the need to protect the nation from such threats as the justification for its unilateral control. Absent such danger, no rationale for the continued dominance of the state over the people would exist, threatening to unravel the regime. The North must therefore foment tension periodically as a means to demonstrate to its own population the reason they are suffering privation and isolation.

China’s interest in the Korean situation is significant but indirect. While there is virtually no chance of a repeat of the experience of the winter of 1950-1, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” were sent to fight on behalf of the North, China recognizes that the collapse of the North Korean regime would result in a Korean state aligned with the U.S. on its border. Given China’s expanding strategic reach as seen in its continued economic and naval expansion, any improvement in the position of the U.S. in the Far East, whether in the growth of its allies or a reduction in tensions that allows it to focus greater attention on China would be most unwelcome.

Recognizing that neither China nor North Korea has any real interest in resolving the situation, the United States and South Korea must accept that their real options are quite limited. Short of war, which is certainly considered the most undesirable outcome, but which is ironically the one that could actually bring the decades-old standoff to a conclusion, there is little to be done. Further isolation and military vigilance plays into the hands of the North Korean regime by reinforcing the security rationale put forward by its leaders. The Chinese will continue to supply the North with as much as it needs to survive, but nothing more, ensuring that attempts at economic isolation will fail while preserving China’s ability to manipulate the situation as its interests dictate.

The key then is China’s strategic interest. It has no desire to see any increase in U.S. power and influence in Asia; resolution of the Korean situation would do just that. For its part, the United States must recognize that China does not wish to resolve the situation in any way that is not explicitly beneficial to its own interests. Reunification and peace may seem universally desirable to many in the U.S. and South Korea, but the views from Pyongyang and Beijing are decidedly less rose-colored.


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