On March 16, the North Korean government announced that it would, in mid-April, conduct what it described as the launch of a satellite. The world was not impressed. This decision was, after all, made in open defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions which prohibit the North from conducting tests implying the use of ballistic missile technology.
The strength of international opinion is notable. Even China, usually inclined to overlook North Korean antics, has found remarkably harsh words to describe North Koreans stated plans.
Nonetheless, it is all but certain that North Korea will proceed with the launch. In internal propaganda, much has been made of the plan, and the North Korean state has characterized international reaction as unreasonable in the sense that it attempts to stop North Korea’s peaceful space exploration.
There is pretty much nothing the international community can do about North Korea’s missile plans. Sanctions have yet to stop North Korea from undertaking nuclear and missile tests. It appears that the sticks are not sharp enough and the carrots are unenticing. The announcement was, after all, made only two weeks after the North had agreed to freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for food aid.
Since neither threats of sanctions nor promise of aid are likely to produce the desired effect, some in Seoul and Washington have begun to openly suggest that the problem can be solved by China. Unfortunately, this idea seems to be unrealistic as well.
There is little doubt that China is not happy about the nuclear and missile programs in the North. But we should not overestimate China’s ability to control day-to-day decision making in Pyongyang. The Soviet Union in the 1960s had as much control over the North Korean economy and foreign trade as China does now.
But this does not translate into control or even significant influence over Pyongyang’s foreign policy ― for example, the hijacking of the USS Pueblo in 1968, a major incident which could have easily escalated into a war, caught Moscow by complete surprise. A senior South Korean diplomat once put it like this: ``China does not have leverage when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang, what China has is a hammer, not a lever.”
Indeed China does have a pretty formidable hammer. Now some two thirds of North Korea’s foreign trade is with China. And in the last few years, China has been almost the sole provider of aid to the North. If China wants to, it can scale back aid ― including shipments of subsidized fuel ― and also ban, or dramatically reduce commercial exchanges with the North. This will deliver a mighty blow to the North Korean economy, and will likely lead to a repetition of the crisis and famine that engulfed the North in the 1990s.
Indeed, this is a large hammer. But China needs a very compelling reason to take such measures with the North ― and such a reason is lacking now.
Such drastic actios might make North Korea’s leadership change its policies, but what is certain is the instability such hammer wielding will create in the North. The implosion in the North that could result would lead to a refugee crisis and disturbances right on China’s borders, not far away from Beijing and other population centers. Of course, China does not want to see a war or a rebellion in a nuclear armed state on its borders. And it should be forgotten that the most likely outcome of such an endgame scenario is the collapse of the North and its unification with the US-aligned South.
China wants to see a nuclear-free and missile-less North Korea. But, this is by no means Beijing’s first priority. Keeping Korea divided and stable is significantly more important to China and this is the major reason why China will never take measures which will really bite when it comes to dealing with North Korea.
It has been suggested that one can influence China by increasing the U.S. military presence in the area, in response to North Korea’s ballistic and fissile adventurism. It goes without saying that China does not want to see U.S. battle groups on the Yellow sea for months on end after missile or nuclear tests. But this is still easier to handle than a collapsed state in the North. China fears that if such a scenario plays out, China would see US soldiers patrolling the Sino-Korean border, i.e. the Yalu River on a daily basis.
Therefore, more sanctions are not going to work. Incentives have been bluntly rejected by Pyongyang and there is little chance that China will come to the rescue. This all sounds rather pessimistic, but, unfortunately, this is the situation at present and for the foreseeable future the North Korean problem is likely to remain unsolved. Meanwhile the outside world can do little to influence the frequently erratic behavior of North Korea’s political elite.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at email@example.com.