China is the Key to Restraining North Korea
By Henry Weaver '13
North Korea belongs to another era. The goose-stepping military parades, the often-comical cult of personality and the attempts at Cold War-style brinksmanship all reinforce its status as an anachronism. Few North Koreans have ever seen an ATM. During this summer’s World Cup, the country’s leadership not only concealed an embarrassing 0-7 loss to Portugal, but also claimed that Kim Jong Il himself relayed tactical advice during matches via “mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye.” Apparently even the dear leader’s wisdom could not help the hapless North Korean footballers. One could almost believe that, sealed off behind the demilitarized zone, North Korea had fallen out of time entirely, still frozen in 1953.

Unfortunately, its status as a nuclear power forces us to treat it and all its quirks with full seriousness. Furthermore, recent events suggest that the reclusive state remains a threat to global security. Internally, North Korea is entering a time of doubt as the elder Kim tries to execute a successful transfer of power to his son, Kim Il Sung. The shelling of a South Korean island last month may have been an effort to prove that the young ’un is every bit as tough as his father. In any case, the United States needs a diplomatic strategy to minimize the threat from fickle North Korea and protect the interests of our ally in the south.

Ultimately, everything depends on China. China finds itself in an awkward position, frustrated by North Korea’s recent shows of militarism but also wanting to support its ally. The recent leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables by the website Wikileaks provided much insight into this sticky situation. In April 2009, the Chinese vice foreign minister, He Yafei, privately criticized a North Korean nuclear test, describing North Korea as a “spoiled child” trying to get the attention of the “adult” United States. Similarly, the recent shelling of South Korea and the sinking of the Cheonan in March are likely attempts to restart six-party (China, America, Japan, Russia and the Koreas) negotiations on the North’s terms.

So, how should we proceed? Barring a brutal and devastating military escalation, the United States will only persuade North Korea to temper its aggression and scale back its nuclear ambitions with the help of China. As painful as it may be to even partially capitulate to the North’s bullying, restarting talks provides the only hope of enlisting China’s aid in this matter. Above all else, China fears instability on its border, either due to rekindled war or political collapse in the North. The United States must convince China that North Korea’s increasing bellicosity already constitutes a genuine threat to stability. China will only exert its influence to get the Kims under control out of self-interest.

North Korea is the last remaining Stalinist state, ruled by a cruel dynasty of megalomania, repression and hunger. The United States cannot consider itself a global leader if it does not continue its efforts to promote a more open and less treacherous North Korea. More importantly, the Korea question will remain a central issue in Sino-American relations for years to come, and how the United States accommodates a rising China may define international politics in the 21st century.

Issue 11, Submitted 2010-12-08 03:35:00