The North Korea Crisis:
The Eagle Falters,
the Dragon Steps In


[I wrote this for my political science class, "China: Politics and Government" on December 14, 2005.]


The way the Bush administration has handled the crisis in North Korea shows that the U.S.’s primary goal is to re-assert its influence in the region, to which the problem of a nuclear-armed North Korea is subordinate. Increasing regional economic integration has undermined American influence, leading one Singaporean diplomat to comment, “The United States may still dominate the [regional] balance of power, but not the balance of influence.”[1] While the Bush administration is under no illusion that it can somehow reverse this process of economic integration, its approach to the North Korean crisis indicates that it seeks to slow its pace and set the terms on which it occurs, allowing the U.S. to remain the region’s dominant power for the foreseeable future.

Undersecretary of State James Kelly’s visit to North Korea in October of 2002, where he accused the DPRK of secretly having a nuclear weapons program, came on the heels of unprecedented rapprochement between North Korea and U.S. allies in the region. Since 1997, South Korea has been committed to a “Sunshine Policy” of friendly relations, and in 2000, both Koreas pledged themselves to eventual reunification. As preliminary steps in this process, a railway between the two countries was opened as well as a road leading to the first tourist center in North Korea. In September of 2002, Japan was on the verge of normalization talks and restoring food aid that it had withdrawn in mid-2001. Had Japan and South Korea normalized relations with North Korea, the U.S. would have faced pressure from these two countries to withdraw troops from their soil since they are ostensibly stationed there in case of a North Korean attack.

Thus, the Bush administration moved to ensure that peace did not break out on the Korean peninsula and went out of its way to antagonize the DPRK. In his State of the Union speech in January of 2002, Bush had labeled North Korea part of the “axis of evil” and a Pentagon nuclear posture review leaked in March of 2002 suggested the possibility of an offensive nuclear strike against North Korea. Before Bush traveled to Seoul in February of 2002, South Korea’s new president Roh Moo Hyun told two American diplomats who went in advance to set up the meeting, “I wake up in a sweat every morning, wondering if Bush has done something unilaterally to affect the [Korean] peninsula.”[2] When it seemed that the U.S. had successfully conquered Iraq in mid-April 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called for “regime change” in North Korea in conjunction with China in a Pentagon memo leaked to the press.[3] Furthermore, the Bush administration has refused to enter into bilateral negotiations with the DPRK, which is how a similar crisis was resolved during the Clinton administration in 1994. Instead, the administration has insisted on drawing in regional powers in an attempt to pressure North Korea multilaterally by forming a U.S.-led united front. They hoped that China could be drawn into supporting the U.S. on the North Korean issue, further isolating the DPRK, and that U.S. ties with its traditional allies would be strengthened.

The problem with the Bush administration’s approach is that it has to a large extent backfired. On the positive side for the administration, Japan has drawn closer to the U.S. and the U.S. has begun encouraging increased Japanese military spending, leading the American Enterprise Institute to comment, “there is no mistaking the fact that Japan has decided to join the United States in its grand strategy of checking China’s great power ambitions.”[4] On the negative side, South Korea has been pushed into China’s orbit politically through the course of the six-party talks by U.S. hostility to anything short of complete capitulation by North Korea. In the fourth round of talks, South Korea’s negotiators stayed in the same hotel as their Chinese counterparts. More seriously, South Korea took China’s side in a dispute with the U.S. over the wording of a joint statement written by the Chinese.[5] The Chinese managed to isolate the U.S. at the talks and even forced the U.S. to sign a joint statement it opposed because it mentioned the delivery of a light-water nuclear reactor.

Despite its supposed obsession with so-called “rogue states” and their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration’s policies have managed to turn North Korea into a nuclear-armed state. In many ways, this is a historic setback for the U.S., which during the Cold War maintained a policy of using nuclear weapons on North Korea within an hour the outbreak of war on the peninsula. As a former U.S. commander explained: “The logic was that we dare not use nuclear weapons in Europe except in the greatest extremity because the other side has them, but we could use them in Korea because it doesn’t.”[6] North Korea’s newly acquired nuclear arsenal, while small, has effectively taken the military option off the table for any future American administration (barring a nuclear exchange) and led the U.S. into a stalemate at the diplomatic table.

Enter China. In the last decade, the PRC has patched up its frayed relations with North Korea, for a number of reasons. The wave of famines in the DPRK after 1994, in which 10 percent of the population died, is a major factor in China’s increasing concern for the health of the regime. The implosion of the regime would create enormous problems for China, such as a mass refugee crisis as well as kindle competition between S. Korea, China, and the U.S. for control of North Korea. Thus, the PRC has a direct interest in the health of the northern regime and any talk of “regime change” is a non-starter, especially in cooperation with the U.S. This is the fundamental reason why China has pledged to give North Korea $2 billion in economic aid this year, which is the largest amount of aid given since relations became strained in 1992 when the PRC recognized the South Korean government.[7]

In all likelihood, China will be the country that plays the leading role in the solution of the North Korean crisis. It is the one country that has been able to bring the North Korean government back to the table when it walked away; it forced the U.S. to sign onto a joint statement that it strongly disagreed with in the fourth round of talks; it has managed to pull South Korea into its camp during the talks. In another sign of China’s growing clout, the Bush administration hastily arranged a meeting in earlier this year in which they falsely accused North Korea of selling uranium hexafluoride to Libya, hoping to dissuade China and its newfound ally South Korea from leaving the six-party talks.[8] While the move worked – China and South Korea remained committed to the six-party talks – it undermined U.S. credibility, as the truth leaked out that the DRPK had sold the material not to Libya, but to a U.S. ally, Pakistan, who unbeknownst to the North Koreans, sold it to Libya. It also bolstered the confidence of the Chinese, who saw in the hastily arranged meeting a sign of American weakness, and in the next round of talks they pushed hard and forced the U.S. to sign a joint statement. To conclude: the Bush administration sought to bolster the U.S. position in Asia, and check the rising influence of China over its traditional allies South Korea and Japan through the framework of the six-party talks and the North Korea crisis. Yet this strategy has backfired, and China is now poised become the second “indispensable nation” in Asia.
Footnotes:

[1] David Shambaugh, “China Engages Asia: Reshaping the Regional Order,” International Security, volume 29, no. 3, Winter 2004/2005.

[2] Fred Kaplan, “Rolling Blunder: How the Bush Administration Let North Korea Get Nukes,” Washington Monthly, May, 2004. Available online: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2004/0405.kaplan.html

[3] David Rennie, “Rumsfeld calls for regime change in North Korea,” Daily Telegraph, April 22, 2003. Available online: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0421-08.htm

[4] Dan Blumenthal, “The revival of the U.S.-Japanese alliance,” American Enterprise Institute, February 25, 2005. Available online: http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.22027/pub_detail.asp

[5] Michael Hirsh and Melinda Liu, “North Korea Hold 'Em,” Newsweek, October 3, 2005. Available online: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9468700/site/newsweek/

[6] Bruce Cumings, Korea's Place in the Sun, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), p. 486.

[7] Yoo-Seong Hwang, “China promises North Korea $2 billion,” Donga.com, October 31, 2005. Available online: http://english.donga.com/srv/service.php3?biid=2005103190108

[8] Dafna Lizner, “U.S. misled allies about nuclear export: North Korea sent material to Pakistan, not Libya,” Washington Post, March 20, 2005. Available online: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A50241-2005Mar19.html 1