Nooklear North Korea

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In the wake of North Korea’s newest missile test, many on the more hawkish right have renewed their call for a tougher stance toward the regime, advancing the possibility of increased military presence in the Korean peninsula. Bill Kristol commented that “targeted air strikes” might be an effective deterrent against North Korea’s consistent belligerence. On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer recently argued that Obama should encourage Japan to produce a nuclear arsenal, thereby shifting regional influence away from Beijing. The Wall Street Journal even weighed in, rebuking the “futility” of Obama’s (and GW Bush’s) diplomatic overtures and advocating the US send a “very clear signal” instead.

I think that preventing North Korea from augmenting its nuclear capabilities is both an admirable and essential objective. Already, the international community has observed an emerging rapprochement between Iran and Kim Jong-Il, who fairly recently shared nuclear technology. Without question, this is an unbalanced regime with little to no regard to international order.

Unfortunately, in my view, there is little to nothing the United States can unilaterally accomplish without sacrificing major strategic interests and alienating regional allies. In particular, the Chinese government clearly has no desire for heightened American influence on the peninsula, an area they perceive as their sphere of influence. Although officials publicly declared their government to be “resolutely opposed” to North Korea’s nuclear program, I think Kim Jong-Il’s regime has assumed a useful role for China. As a rogue, potentially nuclear state, North Korean deterrence has attracted much of the region’s military investment, establishing missile defense as an attractive option for Japan and South Korea—neither of which have traditionally maintained strong relations with China.

Additionally, the autocratic state has created a convenient buffer between South Korea’s more western, market based economy and China’s managed communist-capitalist hybrid. By not sharing a border with South Korea, China can avoid a political and economic proxy struggle that would likely emerge with one of America’s strongest allies. Moreover, unless Korean reunification produces a miraculous pull out of American GI’s, a large US military presence bordering China would undoubtedly rankle Beijing.

Most significantly, it simply does not appear the United States has the leverage to convince the Chinese otherwise. On numerous issues, China has levied its considerable influence to aid American objectives. For instance, despite China’s unambiguous interest in re-asserting their political influence over Taiwan, the Pacific island remains (largely) autonomous—primarily due to its close alliance with Washington. Economically, it would also be highly imprudent to offend the same government currently financing President Obama’s ambitious economic policies. Just weeks after Tim Geithner kindly suggested that China stop deflating its currency, he travelled to Beijing to kiss the Don’s ring in contrition.

Simply put, I just don’t believe the United States presently has the bargaining chips necessary to convince Chinese officials that military action would serve their interests. Pumping North Korea with just enough aid to sustain their tepid economy helps ensure that China holds all the cards, so to speak. It’s not a conclusion I’m eager to advance, but I think it best reflects the regional and international dynamic concerning North Korea.

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