The North Korean Hot Potato


Two events characterize North Korea recently: its new nuclear enrichment facility and the recent military strike against South Korea. The first intensifies speculation about the aims of its nuclear program, while the second ended with several fatalities. It is almost certain that both events can only contribute to sharpening the already pinpoint tension on the Korean peninsula.

Why North Korea is flexing its muscles is a point of contestation, with explanations ranging from the succession crisis to masking the temporary weakness of the regime. The question, however, becomes how to influence China to take a stance against the unilateralism of the North. It is also crucial to consider how South Korea and its allies ought to remain firm in their response to Pyongyang without worsening the situation.

It is likely that China views North Korea as a buffer against the military potential of the U.S., South Korea, and their allies in Southeast Asia. However, Pyongyang’s periodic horseplay tends to irritate Beijing more often than not, to the point where Chinese President Hu Jintao’s men are showing a trend towards condemning what the North Koreans are doing to de-stabilize the peninsula.

For the U.S., these actions are stacking enough evidence for Obama to ‘patiently and strategically’ present the case to China to support its position on condemning North Korea and making Southeast Asia’s black box a little less black.

The majority of the international community maintains significant economic and political sanctions on North Korea that aim to reduce the opportunities Pyongyang has to develop and enhance its military and nuclear capabilities. One inevitable, and crucial, implication is the economic dependence of the North on China. Beijing can use its economic leverage to compel Pyongyang to constrain itself from puffing up like a peacock every time South Korea announces a military exercise.

These sanctions are a driving cause for the sharpening tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world. The remedy can be found with greater integration in the world marketplace; the Chinese development model, used since 1976, provides a good path to follow for North Korea. The reasoning is that even though a degree of economic integration will not overcome the North-South political divide, it will be conducive to reducing the tensions between the two countries and their allies. In the long run, this kind of policy is likely to lead to the re-unification of the peninsula.

Much of what North Korea can or cannot do in respect to international relations is determined by its nuclear status. The superpowers would like to keep their nuclear prerogative as much as possible; when small states acquire armed nuclear capability, they inevitably destabilize the hierarchy of the international system and make it more unpredictable than before.

Thus, the question can be framed differently – who blinks first: North Korea or the international community? Once that answer emerges, we can move forward.

Photo Credit: Digi_Shot