The issue of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula first emerged during the winter of 1985. North Korea, despite nominal compliance to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, failed to complete a safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Now, here we are today nearly thirty-two years later, and North Korea is at the forefront of media and public attention. And, the question still remains: what ought to be the United States’ approach to the quagmire that is North Korea?
The United States must recognize that this is not a situation that can be solved unilaterally. In the past, administrations have explored solutions ranging from diplomatic impetus and focused freezes of North Korean nuclear programs; all of which have proven unsustainable. The United States must procure international support for a calculated and feasibly enforceable set of trade and military sanctions that, in a relatively adequate time, will force North Korean leadership to sit down for discussion on resolutions that will produce long term and suitably amicable results.
The beginning of United States-North Korea relations is probably best attributed to September 9, 1949. It was on this day that Kim Il-sung declared the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Soviet Union gave diplomatic recognition to the new nation, but no such recognition was extended by the United States. In December of 1950, the United States introduced economic sanctions against North Korea under the Trading with the Enemy Act which stayed in placed until 2008.
Tensions would eventually give way to the Korean War between North and South Korea. The United States would give their support to South Korea, which would lead to a two month occupation of North Korea following the Inchon landing in September of 1950. The war would eventually end in an armistice along with the creation of the Demilitarized Zone which runs northeast of the 38th parallel; this also meant the split of North and South Korea that remains today.
The relationship between the United States and North Korea has failed to improve since the 1950s. North Korean ambitions, especially pertaining to nuclear weapons, have put them at odds with the United States for decades. North Korea’s refusal to commit to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty put the world down a path that, in 2017, has many fearing that nuclear war is an inevitably. This, however, does not have to be the case. There is still a way to clear a path towards a peaceful resolution, but the journey towards this destination will not be easy for the United States.
The key to relieving the tension between the United States and North Korea rests with the ever reticent and growing power that is the People’s Republic of China. China officially joined the Korean War in support of North Korea in October of 1950 following the crossing of the 38th parallel by the United Nations Command. China accepted North Korean refugees and students during the war while also providing economic assistance to the struggling nation. After the armistice that was signed in 1953, China, along with the Soviet led Eastern Bloc, continued to provide North Korea with large amounts of economic support in order to facilitate the reconstruction and development of the country.
Although there was a slight deterioration of relations during the 1960s, mostly due to criticisms of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the poor leadership of Mao Zedong. Despite these setbacks in their relationship, North Korea, and China signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty in 1961. The treaty, which has been prolonged twice and holds validity until 2021, guarantees that China will supply immediate military and any other needed assistance to its ally in the case of any outside attack.
The relationship between China and North Korea has been a veritable seesaw of tensions that is quickly increasing as the threat of hostilities breaking out between the U.S and North Korea continues to loom.
In 2009 President Hu Jintao of China and Kim Jong-Il of North Korea declared that 2009 would be “the year of China-DPRK friendship.” This love-affair, however, was destined not to last. In of 2013, a series of impoundments of Chinese fishing boats resulted in a boat and crew being ransomed by North Korea to the tune of 600,000 yuan. It was at this time that relations between the two nations had reached an unprecedented low.
The current Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has yet to meet with Kim Jong-Un and is now the only Chinese President to not meet with the leader of North Korea.
Most importantly for the United States, however, is the history between North Korea and China in regards to the North Korean nuclear weapons program. China has participated in the six-party talks since 2003 which came as a result of North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The talks comprised, as the name suggests, six nations: United States, China, North Korea, Japan, and Russia. The talks, which were held in Beijing, have aimed to find a suitable resolution to the issue of the North Korea’s nuclear program. There was substantial ground made in the area during the third phase of the fifth set of talks. At this time North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities if they were provided with fuel aid and if the steps towards normalized relations with the United States and Japan were undertaken. The progress was shattered by the Presidential Statement issued by the United Nations Security Council from April 13, 2009. The statement criticized North Korea’s failed satellite launch. This prompted North Korea to announce that they would pull out of the Six-Party Talks and resume their nuclear program in order to strengthen their nuclear deterrent.
China has made it clear that they are in staunch opposition to the growing nuclear capabilities of North Korea. The February 12th North Korean nuclear test in 2013 was denounced by the Chinese government. This same sentiment was echoed in 2016 following the January nuclear tests conducted by North Korea. This move by North Korea prompted China and the United States to introduce new sanctions on the nation. China has since issued further sanctions on North Korea. In February of 2017, China decided to halt imports of coal into the country from North Korea.
The economic ties between China and North Korea will be crucial in finding a peaceful solution to this nuclear dilemma. The economic aid provided to North Korea by China accounts for nearly half of the country’s foreign aid. China is also North Korea’s greatest trading partner, providing 57% of all North Korean imports and accounting for 42% of their exports(2013). Statistics from China stated that exports to China from North Korea were around $3 billion and imports were close to $3.6 billion. The aforementioned sanction on coal imports is slated to stand until 2018. Coal is the top export for North Korea and this move by China could prove to be disastrous for the North Korean economy. The economic fallout between China and North Korea has not stopped there, however. On September 28th of this year, China, in accordance with UN sanctions introduced due to nuclear test from earlier that month, issued an order to have all North Korean businesses to cease operations within China.
It is clear that China holds massive sway of North Korea, despite what North Korea may say to the contrary. As their largest trading partner, ally in times of conflict, and major economic aid contributor, China must be willing to take the lead in slowing and ultimately ending the North Korean nuclear program. China and North Korea have a long history of cooperation that has resulted in China becoming the economic crutch that keeps North Korea from collapsing.
The United States must recognize this relationship and how it can be used to satisfy its own goals. Attempts to negotiate with North Korea have proven to be unsuccessful in the past, but a new approach must be taken. The global community issuing sanctions against North Korea, the United States included, simply do not hold the same clout as sanctions handed down by North Korea. It can be observed that there has been a noted spike in North Korean aggression and development of nuclear capabilities since the coal sanction in February. It would seem that the North Korean leadership understands the long-term repercussions of this action and working to seize power on the international stage that would lead to greater independence and self-sufficiency. And, the best way to achieve this goal, as North Korea has seemed to determine, is to directly challenge the United States.
The goal of any rational nation should be to prevent bloodshed whenever possible. There have been many individuals that have voiced the opinion that the United States should conduct a preventive strike against North Korea in order to resolve the issue. This would be the action of a country that has been backed into a corner and has no other choice but to destroy or be destroyed. That, however, is not the situation that the United States now finds itself in. As of present, North Korea is believed to possess ICBMs that have the capability of reaching the continental United States, but they do not possess the firepower to destroy the United States. Though it is widely known that the United States has the most extensive nuclear arsenal in the world and does possess the ability to destroy North Korea. But, again, this should not be the desired outcome of any rational person.
The evidence that is available all points to China, and the United States’ ability to garner their support, as the best chance of putting an end to the North Korean nuclear program and perhaps easing tensions. The United States will need to proposition China with plans for a bilateral operation that, in time, will include the other major players in the international game (UK, France, Germany, Japan) designed to draft and implement a targeted set of sanctions with an emphasis on economic interactions between North Korea and China. These sanctions will begin to tighten the purse strings of the North Korean government, which will, in turn, necessitate cutbacks across the board for the country. Economically crippling North Korea will create internal turmoil and further societal and governmental unrest. A divided and depleted nation becomes a cat declawed; helpless when expected to fend for itself.
North Korea will be forced to capitulate any hope of nuclear dominance and will have to concede to the United States’ regulations. A solution that does not require violence can still lead to success, so long as the plan is crafted and executed. The United States, which has a history of leading, will have to except it limitations in this situation and turn to partners for help. The United States can triumph here when they put their ego and pride aside in favor of rational and civil diplomacy.