The path toward dialogue with North Korea looks fainter by the day. Washington is calling for increased isolation of the North Korean government, announcing expanded arms sales to South Korea and Japan, and promising to deploy additional strategic assets in and around the Korean Peninsula. Even the South Korean government has said that dialogue may have to wait, since North Korea's latest nuclear test and rapid-fire missile launches threaten to destabilize the security balance in East Asia.
Beijing, meanwhile, has kept up its calls for talks, though it also has advocated stronger sanctions on Pyongyang. The most important thing, China insists, is that the United States and North Korea sit down to talk — whether in a multilateral, trilateral, bilateral or whatever possible format. From Beijing's perspective, dialogue is the only way to ease the heightened tensions in Korea, while excessive sanctions or coercive tactics are largely ineffective, if not counterproductive. It's becoming increasingly obvious, however, that Washington and Beijing differ in their thinking about talks with North Korea. Having just returned from two weeks spent engaged in unofficial dialogues and exchanges in the region, I can attest that the gulf separating China from the United States is as wide as the media makes it out to be. But the reasons behind the divergence are different from the ones so often described in the news.
The Value of Talk
Washington sees talks as a means to an end — in this case, the denuclearization of North Korea. Negotiations are worth the effort only if they will roll back Pyongyang's weapons programs. In two and a half decades of talks though, each agreement struck to that end has broken down, and all the while, North Korea has slowly but steadily improved its nuclear and missile capabilities. Politicians in the United States consequently have come to view dialogue as appeasement or even capitulation. By negotiating with Pyongyang, Washington has "allowed" North Korea to become a nuclear state and to use that status against it.
The issue, at its heart, is about more than North Korea. It's about the national security strategy that Washington has crafted over the past two centuries, a strategy built on the judicious use of force abroad to demonstrate that the United States is a reliable ally. "Allowing" North Korea to attain a long-range nuclear missile after decades of declaring that such an outcome would never happen may not, in itself, fundamentally alter the U.S. security situation. But it could change the perception of the United States' power, influence and commitment to its allies. Talk is cheap and, without concrete action to back it up, potentially damaging.
For China, on the other hand, the end result is less important than the dialogue itself. The very act of engaging in talks helps relieve the immediate tensions, from Beijing's point of view, and reduces the chances of an accident or miscalculation that could lead to conflict.
There's a logic to this position. Isolation and containment without engagement haven't discouraged North Korea in its quest for nuclear weapons or changed Pyongyang's feeling that its leadership is under threat from the United States. Economic pressure, moreover, has done little to weaken the government's resolve: In 1998, during its worst years of famine, North Korea developed and tested its first satellite launch vehicle. While it's true that talks haven't stopped North Korea from developing its arsenal, nor have they reassured Pyongyang enough to drop its strategic weapons program, they have slowed the pace of development and testing. North Korea has delayed tests during brief periods of negotiation. It even destroyed the cooling tower of the Yongbyon reactor amid negotiations in 2008 (and then began rebuilding it when the discussions broke down). Beijing already informally considers North Korea a nuclear weapons state, albeit one with limited capabilities. And since ignoring or denying the reality won't change the situation for the better, it argues, could talking really make things worse?
Notwithstanding the improvement in their range, which may now extend to the U.S. mainland, China doesn't see North Korea's missiles as a greater threat to the United States now than they were before. Pyongyang, after all, already could launch missiles at U.S. bases in South Korea, Japan, and probably Guam and Hawaii, too, meaning its nuclear-capable weapons already offered it a deterrent. Securing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) won't increase North Korea's risk to the United States, Beijing asserts, not least of all because Pyongyang's long-range missiles are liquid-fueled and, as a result, take longer to fire up. Washington would have enough time to launch a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang should it feel the need, and failing that, its layered missile defense system would take care of the problem, at least in theory.
Furthermore, assuming the goal of North Korea's nuclear program really is to ensure the Kim dynasty's continued reign, then Pyongyang is susceptible to traditional means of deterrence. North Korea won't launch its missiles proactively because doing so would invite the destruction of its government. From China's perspective, the United States isn't closing in on some dreadful deadline that will require a military solution, rather than a program to manage North Korea in the long term. And if it is, the best path forward is to reduce the sense of crisis instead of amplifying it with rash statements and shows of military force.
Reassessing the Palliative Approach
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been largely satisfied with merely managing the North Korea issue. Part of the reason for this strategy was the belief (extant in some circles to this day) that the government in Pyongyang would collapse at any moment, that it would simply disintegrate as the governments of so many other Communist bloc countries did after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The conventional military threat that North Korea posed to South Korea was another factor; the cost of physical intervention on the Korean Peninsula outweighed the danger Pyongyang presented. At the same time, North Korea wasn't going to start a war it couldn't win. So though Pyongyang was a bit of a destabilizing force from a political standpoint, it wasn't a direct military threat to the United States, least of all to the continental United States.
Today, that perception is changing rapidly. The problem isn't so much that a few unreliable nuclear-tipped ICBMs could bring the United States to its knees but that the country has spent more than a century trying to ensure that no power could threaten to bring war to its mainland. What's more, the United States does not share China's view of North Korea as a rational actor that responds to traditional deterrence theory. North Korea operates more like a kingdom of old than like a modern nation state. The willingness and ability of the country's elite to sacrifice the population, and to accept higher levels of risk, make it less predictable and, by extension, less coercible. The sorts of deterrents that kept the Soviet Union or China from belligerency may not work on North Korea. Management may no longer be a politically viable option for the United States, even if it is militarily possible.
China and the United States alike have based their assessments of the situation on their perceptions of North Korea's capability, intent and predictability. But both of them may be misreading Pyongyang. The United States has misjudged the effectiveness of sanctions on the North for decades. More recently, North Korea's missile test flight over Japan surprised China, which thought that Pyongyang had backed off its launches for fear of military reprisal from the United States and was instead preparing to resume negotiations.
And that brings us to the North Korean strategy. Pyongyang is using unofficial channels to emphasize that it will not entertain negotiations devoted to denuclearization but that it is open to talks that would lead the United States and its allies to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. With characteristic bravado, North Korea claims that it already has hundreds of warheads, hinting that it may have acquired additional nuclear material through the Russian black market. The declaration may sound incredible at face value, but then again so did the notion that the North had developed hydrogen-bomb technology a year ago. Pyongyang hides just enough plausible truth in its boasts to make other countries rethink their intelligence assessments and expectations. To strengthen its case, meanwhile, North Korea is committed to demonstrating its ability to field both atomic and hydrogen bombs while perfecting its submarine-launched ballistic missiles, along with land-based, road-mobile systems. We haven't seen the last of North Korea's missile tests, no matter what sanctions the U.N. Security Council devises.
Pyongyang envisions itself as the David to Washington's Goliath, the righteous underdog taking aim at the U.S. behemoth with an ICBM for a sling and a hydrogen bomb warhead for a stone. North Korea is making every effort to broadcast that it feels it can tolerate war on its territory far better than the United States could, having withstood the Japanese invasion, World War II and the Korean War. By contrast, the United States hasn't experienced an international conflict on its continental territory for well over a century and lacks the political stamina to accept the risk of war on its mainland or so North Korea imagines. So while Pyongyang's nuclear program is primarily an effort to ensure the government's survival, as Washington and Beijing assume, it is also an attempt to shape the regional security dynamic. A conventional deterrent, such as the military capabilities that Pyongyang long relied on to discourage a physical intervention on the Korean Peninsula, will only keep the United States from taking proactive action. A nuclear weapon, however, could be enough to change Washington's strategic assessment of Asia, compelling the United States to reduce and eventually withdraw its forces in South Korea.
And even if North Korea doesn't use its nuclear capabilities to start a war, the sheer fact of their accomplishment could prove the futility of U.S. security guarantees to South Korea. The achievement also could give Pyongyang the leverage it needs to engage in a direct dialogue with the United States geared toward normalizing their relations, conceivably bringing North Korea one step closer to unification through nonmilitary means. Pyongyang has set an ambitious deadline for reaching the first benchmark in its broader political alignment: North Korea plans to be a recognized and normalized nuclear weapons state by the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. Between now and then, it expects a confrontation with the United States, and it is letting Washington decide what shape the conflict will take — military or merely political.
Neither Beijing nor Washington is exactly right about the prospect of negotiating with North Korea. China assumes that North Korea would agree to suspend its missile and nuclear programs in talks so long as the United States promised to ease up on its military activity on the Korean Peninsula. The United States, meanwhile, assumes that coercion is the most effective way to get North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But North Korea has little intention of delaying, much less ending, its nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang wants to come back to the negotiating table — but this time as a peer among fellow nuclear powers.