Tail wags the dog: U.S. policy of outsourcing N. Korea crisis to China has failed

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Parris H. Chang

In diplomacy, an inch can be longer than a foot, and the weak can wield greater leverage over the strong.

This is why North Korea, a rogue state, impoverished and vulnerable is able to irritate, bully and even threaten the two superpowers, the U.S. and China.

For many weeks, the world has been preoccupied and intimidated by Pyongyang’s warmongering, as Kim Jong-Un, a young leader who succeeded to his father’s mantle only 16 months ago, has been ratcheting up threats of nuclear war.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing on April 13.  /Yohsuke Mizuno/AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing on April 13. /Yohsuke Mizuno/AP

Is Pyongyang capable of launching nuclear weapons? The Defense Intelligence Agency said “probably,” but not all U.S. intelligence agencies agree that North Korean scientists have mastered the highly difficult technology to miniaturize and mount a nuclear warhead that can be delivered by a missile.

But this is beside the point, because in international relations, perceptions are more important than reality. Kim’s generals have learned from ancient China’s military strategist Sun Tsu on the Art of War that  “all warfare is based on deception. To win a war, it is often necessary to adopt subterfuge that “exaggerate one’s capacity and feign application.”

Successive U.S. administrations since the 1990s have sought China’s assistance in trying to stop North Korea’s denuclearization and curb its provocations, but to no avail. Even after Pyongyang’s surprise attack and sinking of a South Korean frigate, resulting in the deaths of 46 sailors, in March 2010, Beijing continued to defend and support its ally’s unprovoked action, an irate President Barack Obama would criticize Beijing’s “willful blindness” to the face of Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

Unlike the U.S. and its allies in East Asia, China does not really worry about a nuclear-armed North Korea. If U.S. and United Nations officials can be trusted, Beijing and Chinese state-owned enterprises have played leading roles in aiding North Korea’s development of missile systems and nuclear technologies. Whereas China hosted the “six-party talks” (involving the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Russia) on North Korea’s denuclearization during 2003-2008, Chinese officials appeared to skillfully string out the international talks to provide Pyongyang time and political cover to develop and advance its missile and nuclear programs.

Pyongyang has taken China’s aid and support for granted, because they have maintained a symbiotic relationship, nourished on blood. While China occasionally felt compelled to appease the U.S. and voted for the UN sanctions imposed on North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and, March 2013, Beijing has not enforced these sanctions. Chinese leaders believe that China’s national interests are best served by a secure and stable Kim regime and would do what it takes to safeguard the status quo of the Korean Peninsula, including the division of North and South Korea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent statement at the Boao Forum for Asia that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains” may have conveyed to several U.S. observers the impression of a “shift” in China’s attitudes and a possibility of Beijing’s willingness to lean on Pyongyang. Xi can say right things at the right time, just as the China’s ambassador voted in favor of the new UN sanctions last month, but the appearance is deceptive.

True, Pyongyang’s belligerence has damaged China’s interests, and several Chinese analysts have called for Beijing to abandon North Korea as an ally or adopt a new policy. On the other hand, however, China’s military-industrial complex, which plays the dominant role in its relationship with North Korea, considers North Korea a valuable asset — a strategic buffer as well as a useful pawn to check-mate and counteract against the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

Furthermore, Xi has risen to the pinnacle of China’s power structure with the staunch support of the military leaders and is more likely to support their policy preference. Especially in the wake of President Obama’s “re-balancing” strategy in Asia and U.S. support for Japan in the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Tiaoyu (Senkaku) islets, Beijing must stand by its old Communist ally, for better or worse.

Secretary of State John Kerry has just concluded his trip to East Asia and had meetings with the top leaders in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. He seems inclined to opening talks with North Korea and, eventually, a return to another round of “6-party talks.” That would be a terrible mistake, going around and around, repeating the cycle of Pyongyang’s brinkmanship and U.S. ransom for North Korea’s good behavior.

The Obama administration needs a better and new strategy, one that does not “outsource” the problems of North Korea’s denuclearization and bad behavior to Beijing, which has been pursuing its own agenda.

The policy of engagement has been a dismal failure, as the endless dialogue on the North yielded no practical results on Pyongyang’s denuclearization. Such a well-worn path will go nowhere — only to a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Dr. Parris H. Chang, professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University and former deputy secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council, is CEO of Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.

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