Asking China to 'Fix' North Korea Is a Waste of Time

ottobattista
@ottobattista

American and South Korean officials have said for over a year that North Korea would be able, within a very short time, to miniaturize a nuclear device, mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile and hit the continental United States. The country's test launch Tuesday didn't conclusively demonstrate that Pyongyang has reached this point, but Alaska and Hawaii might already be within range — and US forces in South Korea and Japan certainly are.

This isn't the first time the North has marked the Fourth with fireworks. On July 4, 2006, a North Korean short-range missile barrage broke a seven-year moratorium, stemming from a 1998 Taepo-Dong missile launch that landed in the Pacific east of Japan. Tokyo responded angrily, leading Pyongyang to declare the moratorium (though it continued static-rocket testing), ironically gaining a propaganda victory.

In addition, the North substantially increased ballistic-missile cooperation with Iran, begun earlier in the decade, a logical choice since both countries were relying upon the same Soviet-era Scud missile technology, and because their missile objectives were the same: acquiring delivery capabilities for nuclear warheads.

This longstanding cooperation on delivery systems, almost certainly mirrored in comparable cooperation on nuclear weapons, is one reason North Korea threatens not only the United States and East Asia, but the entire world. In strategic terms, this threat is already here. Unfortunately, we should have realized its seriousness decades ago to prevent it from maturing.

A South Korean navy ship fires a missile during a drill aimed to counter North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile test, on July 6, 2017 in East Sea, South Korea.

It's clear that nearly 25 years of diplomatic efforts, even when accompanied by economic sanctions, have failed. President Trump seemed to continue the "carrots and sticks" approach, first with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and more recently during South Korean President Moon Jae-in's Washington visit.

As he has said subsequently, however, we must shift to a more productive approach. China has been playing the United States while doing next to nothing to reverse the North's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. Indeed, there's every reason to believe Beijing has at best turned a blind eye to willful violations of international sanctions and its own commitments, allowing Chinese enterprises and individuals to enable Pyongyang.

In response, many contend we should impose economic sanctions against China, pressuring it to pressure North Korea. While superficially attractive, this policy will inevitably fail.

Because, however, the failure will take time to become evident, sanctioning China will simply buy still more time for Pyongyang to advance its programs.

China's economy is so large that targeted sanctions against named individuals and institutions can have only minimal consequences. They will also suffer the common fate of such sanctions, being very easily evaded by establishing "cut outs" carrying on precisely the same activities under new names.

Plus, China's decades of mixed signals about the DPRK reflect its uncertainty about exactly what to do with the North. Sanctioning China might only strengthen the hand of Beijing's pro-Pyongyang faction, obviously the opposite of the result we seek.

Instead, Washington should keep its focus on the real problem: North Korea. China must be made to understand that, unless the threat is eliminated by reunifying the Peninsula, the US will do whatever is necessary to protect innocent American civilians from the threat of nuclear blackmail.

In the end, this unquestionably implies the use of military force, despite the risks of broader conflict on the Korean Peninsula, enormous dangers to civilians there and the threat of massive refugee flows from the North into China and South Korea. They can work with us or face the inevitable consequences, which will be far more damaging to China than pinprick sanctions.

These are very unhappy alternatives. But the lesson of the past 25 years is that pursuing diplomacy in the face of overwhelming evidence that diplomacy could not succeed has brought us to this point. We can either accept that reality now, or be forced to accept it later, with potentially much more painful results.

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