North Korea is a relic stuck in the last century, a country with more in common with Stalin's Russia than it has with its 21st Century neighbors. Yet it represents an open quandary for policymakers both Western and Chinese. How do you solve a question like North Korea?
Before the Democratic People's Republic of Korea became a nuclear power, it was policy backwater; a secretive state clinging to a Cold War existence and allowing the wider world to ignore the Kim family's fiefdom. All that changed a little over a decade ago when, to great internal fanfare, the East Asian state tested its' first atomic weapon. Since then it has defied sanctions and amassed a serviceable nuclear strike capability with ICBM systems that could combine with H-Bomb warheads to create a ‘city busting' package capable of hitting the U.S. West Coast.
Threats from the DPRK to meet ‘American Imperialists' with nuclear fire need to be taken seriously, as do any threats from a nuclear power, however it should be noted that it is unlikely that the North Koreans actually want all-out war. The progeny of Kim the dynasty are calculating survivors, with the current supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un, ruthlessly suppressing any threat to his leadership.
Also the small scale of the nuclear arsenal capable of hitting the US mainland, makes it completely impossible for North Korea to knock out the US before a massive retaliatory strike is launched. Therefore the only rational use of the DRPKs arsenal is as a deterrence measure; would President Trump seek to topple the DRPK by force? Unlikely. Would President Trump be willing to trade the taking of Pyongyang for the destruction of Seattle? Certainly not. Kim is not, as some have said, acting irrationally. In the world of nuclear politics is actually cementing his dynasty for generations to come.
So how do you stop a state like North Korea? Well for the US the options are limited, sanctions may tighten but their effect on the near self-sufficient DRPK would be limited, if the famine of the 1990s didn't unseat the communist regime it is unlikely that it will do so a second time round. The use of force is now unthinkable, even if the Chinese would have stood for an attack on its southern neighbor. The only possible way forward is diplomatic and to have any meaningful outcome it will need the support of Beijing.
Pyongyang's Juche policy of self-reliance means that even its largest trading partner is struggling to apply enough economic pressure to rein the Hermit Kingdom. The Financial Times reported in July that China's ban on North Korean coal was having minimal impact on the ability of the DRPK to procure the goods needed to sustain itself. In fact, the Sino-North Korean trade numbers that month led to President Trump tweeting, "So much for China working with us." Even with such struggles though, China could be doing more: the coal exports have simply been replaced by other products. To make sanctions effective Beijing must reduce all cross-border trade.
China too must be feeling nervous, however, as the events of recent weeks had the feel of August 1914 about them. China's foreign ministry gave some of its sternest statements yet, rebuking Pyongyang for its hubris and even going so far as granting the imposition of new sanctions. That said, the main fear for Beijing is the stability of its own borders, the collapse of the DRPK would result in hundreds of thousands of refugees looking to flee north into Liaoning province, creating a strain on resources as well as potentially damaging the economy and leading to political unrest.
China finds itself in an unenviable position, of having an ally in North Korea that needs to be propped up, but at the same time, it must bring Pyongyang to heel or face a situation that could see a confrontation between the globe's two biggest powers. How do we solve a question like North Korea? Convince China that they need to find the answer.
Guy Edwards is a Masters graduate and freelance writer on strategy and international security. Follow him on Twitter, @OfficialGuyE
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