China will likely take priority in US foreign policy under the leadership of Donald Trump, yet the need to confront and resolve conflicting interests between China and the United States, including the shared interests of US allies, does not negate the need to address lesser priorities. Where US efforts to balance Chinese aggression help strengthen ties with nations that are threatened by China’s aggressive policies, these actions also undermine America’s ability to work with Beijing to address the shared threat of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. With that in mind, one must talk about American policies toward North Korea in order to properly engage China.
Under the self-serving leadership of Kim Jong-Un’s father, North Korea’s rogue behavior was predictable and easily satiated, but Kim Jong-Un is a man who seeks to prove himself as a great leader and demonstrate the greatness of his country, which means war continually grows more likely. From Clinton to Obama, the US and its allies have tried to address North Korea’s nuclear ambitions through cycles of engagement and disengagement. Not only have US efforts failed to prevent the nuclearization of North Korea, the North has used the process to solicit billions in foreign aid. In other words, the US has no real options outside of bombing the North or relying on others to force a diplomatic resolution.
China’s influence over the North and Russia’s improved relations with Pyongyang offer the best chance; however, China and Russia will be weary of becoming a target for North Korea. Unfortunately, Chinese aggression, which is exemplified by South China Sea Crisis, continues to be an imminent threat to the US and Asia while Russian hostility, which is exemplified by the Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s highly destructive intervention in the Syria Civil War, continues to be an imminent threat to the US and Europe. Although these realities cannot be ignored Nuclear weapons tend to trump all other considerations, especially when they are detonated as North Korea keeps doing.
Just as the US must criticize friends, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel for their wrongs in order to help resolve issues that fester and undermine stability, the US must do the same with China and Russia while China and Russia must do the same with North Korea. For Russia’s part, it has little leverage it can use to coerce Pyongyang into relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. Regrettably, the irrational nature of the North represents a threat to China, so Beijing must be careful in how it confronts Kim Jong-Un or risk becoming a target. A failure to adequately confront North Korea, however, undermines Chinese regional influence and allows the North Korean threat to grow, which is why Beijing’s perceived leniency toward the hostile Kim Jong-Un regime has long irritated the US and its Asian allies.
What might not be so apparent to the Chinese leadership is the negative impact on China’s standing across Asia. In certain corners of the world, Beijing’s dedication to its longtime ally and refusal to cave under US pressure would win China praise and increased diplomatic leverage. Because North Korea is a danger to everyone, Beijing’s resistance “to protect” Asia from North Korea also undermines Beijing’s influence. More importantly, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is a far more pressing threat to China than the United States. The same is, of course, true for Russia. If China attempts to punish the North as it has done in the past, Kim Jong-Un is likely to lash out against China instead of capitulating. If it strengthens ties with the North, China could force the US to react while ignoring the problem will assuredly make it worse.
The overall problem with North Korea is that the International Community finds itself in a vicious cycle where the communist nation engages in destructive conduct, which forces a reaction at a hefty cost to the treasuries of world powers, then Pyongyang begs for humanitarian aid in the wake of another food crisis before the North engages in even worse behavior. Continually enabling North Korea's reckless behavior has only encouraged an escalation of its disruptive, self-destructive policies. As the impoverished nation advances its nuclear ambitions, the situation will continually get worse.
Modeling North Korea after an insecure person, the communist country is very much an isolated, insecure nation thoroughly afraid of the outside world while it is also a narcissist, self-righteous country convinced of its own national and racial supremacy. By defying international conventions and engaging the world in a hostile manner since the Korean War stagnated into an armistice sixty years ago, the rogue state has acted as a state terrorist that has successfully used violence and threat of violence to demand continuous ransom from the International Community. Meanwhile, the North Korean government has essentially created a national cult that severely punishes individual and novel thought. This means the culture is stagnate and unlikely to revolt against government misbehavior.
In recent years, North Korea has grown increasingly hostile towards its neighbors. In spite of the fact the North has been afforded a great deal of concessions over the years, its behavior has only crescendoed from bad to moderate to worse. Not only has the North achieved its goal to become a nuclear power, it has even physically attacked South Korea without a proportional reprisal on repeated occasions. Some believed the isolated nation would behave more in line with the expectations of the International Community once it obtained greater leverage thanks to its expanding nuclear capacity. Unfortunately, it has not. In fact, the installation of Kim Jong-Un after the death of his father has only resulted in an even more aggressive stance. In recent years, Kim Jong-Un has made it clear that he intends to prove himself deserving of his post while he does not appear to share his father's same drive to behave rationally when it serves his personal interests.
Insecure people seeking a sense of security can benefit from a criticism free environment. By affording such individuals reasonable concessions when they engage in disagreeable behaviors, they can learn to both trust and behave in a more acceptable fashion. By contrast, insecure persons, who express their insecurities in a domineering, aggressive manner, will be less likely to benefit from such an environment, because these individuals view concessions to be appeasements. As these individuals begin to feel more secure, they tend to grow increasingly aggressive and domineering. Consequently, the only means of managing their misbehavior is by forcibly stopping the misbehavior and/or offering punishments that demonstrate the willingness and ability of a legitimate authority to prevent the misbehavior.
Consequently, the North can only be expected to remain locked in the same vicious cycle that has allowed for its nuclearization and escalating hostility against South Korea, the US, and the rest of the International Community. Political and diplomatic efforts have had a few minor successes; however, these successes will not lead to an end-game strategy. Appeasing the North Korean dictator will only encourage his government to demand greater concessions from the West and afford him the room to expand his nuclear arsenal. All diplomatic efforts going forward must, therefore, be aimed at reversing North Korea's progress on nuclear weapons; otherwise, they will be useless endeavors that can only result in a greater threat down the road.
Where offering humanitarian aid in other countries under various circumstances might garner support for our international order, the Kim regime has socially engineered its People to view foreign aid as an act of submission and tribute instead of charity to a population suffering due to their government's policies. Consequently, helping North Korea feed its People allows the regime to maintain order and satiate growing unrest. Meanwhile, the US and its allies have sponsored round after round of economic sanctions designed specifically to encourage its citizens to pressure the regime. Clearly, giving North Korea the one thing its People cannot live without is counterproductive. It is time we break the vicious cycle Pyongyang has forced upon the world and its People.
Although formally ending the ongoing Korean War would be nice, the two major objectives at this time must be denuclearization and disarmament of the Kim regime. Looking at the "oil for food program” in Iraq, which admittedly Saddam Hussein did abuse, a solution may be available. North Korea is a poor country in many ways, yet it is rich enough to sustain a massive military, which includes warships and an aggressive nuclear program. As such, it has the wealth to buy, or barter for, basic necessities like food. Given the fact the North costs the US and South Korea with its use of war machines, they can give up their hardware to feed their People. Coupled with an agreement to resume denuclearization, a "weapons for food" program could help the International Community push North Korea to start disarming while addressing the cyclical humanitarian crisis that undermines its society.
The world is at a critical juncture where the lack of a sufficient response to North Korean violence will lead to escalating aggressions on behalf of the North Koreans. That is until the world finds itself in a major war that could start with a nuclear blast. As frightening as the potential of escalation is, a failure to act will lead to a situation where North Korea will be more likely to use nuclear weapons at a time when it will have a larger stockpile and better delivery systems. Should North Korea strike the South or any other neighbor, either China and/or the US must make a quick, crushing blow against the North Korean military. In doing so, the North will quickly learn it does not have the military supremacy the leadership has convinced the North Korean People it has. In turn, the North Korean government will either be forced to learn that its bad behavior will not be appeased or escalate the war. If escalation occurs, both China and the US must be prepared to inflict serious damage to the regime's military infrastructure.
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