The North Korean China Factor

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Monday, February 6th, 2017
Spencer Lee

Despite North Korea being a small, isolated country in East Asia, its presence is known well around the world. The technology behind the nuclear weapons of North Korea, albeit only a couple decades old and not as advanced as other states’, is still a formidable threat (BBC, November 16th, 2016 ).

Moreover, with the recent test of the North Korean rocket “Gwangmyong-4,” the threat of North Korean nuclear attacks should not be considered as being vague ideas. Since the public announcement of the program in 2002, the project has expanded; now, the nuclear power of North Korea is significant enough to the point that it is a real threat. The 5th nuclear bomb test – only nine months after the preceding test – proves that North Korea’s quickly improving capabilities are no longer a myth.

The massive overhauls made to the nuclear program is shocking considering the objections of the powerful countries that surround the DPRK. The DPRK is surrounded by countries that can both physically and economically overpower it. China and Russia are two of the strongest countries in the world, and South Korea and Japan are also strong regional powers. And even though Korea and Japan have a strained relationship, they are both close allies of the United States – the strongest nation on earth, with troops in both their countries. Korea and Japan have even agreed to share intelligence with each other because of the North Korean threat. All of these countries want North Korea to stop their nuclear program.

This leaves one question: How does North Korea, despite being surrounded by some of the strongest countries in the 21st century, still manage to further advance their nuclear prowess?

The obvious answer is because of China’s support. China’s position on North
Korean nuclear weapons isn’t simple, which makes it hard to analyze the process. However, it is clear that it’s because of China’s influence that North Korea can still focus on their nuclear program. Because North Korea is still receiving significant amounts of money and materials from their 70 year old ally, the People’s Republic of China, they will still be capable of many more tests involving these bombs. However, when China is asked to take measures against North Korea such as imposing sanctions on North Korea, China only responds halfheartedly.

This shows, without a doubt, that China is only halfheartedly agreeing to the idea of North Korean denuclearization. The reasons why North Korea won’t stop is because they know that China will always help them behind closed doors (The Diplomat, March 5th, 2016).

China, North Korea’s closest ally since 1950, has been sending support to North Korea so
that the nuclear program of North Korea can flourish over the years. China’s official response to the growing accusations and suspicions is that China will “strive to achieve peace in the Korean peninsula.” The general vagueness of this statement is reflected in China’s behavior with both Koreas. Without China’s cooperation, which is crucial to pressure North Korea into stopping its nuclear program, there is no way to stop North Korea’s growing threat as a nuclear-weaponized country.

Some people have attempted to create solutions – some have considered a South Korean nuclear program to counter North Korea’s nuclear program. However, this is a very risky decision and there would probably be more lost than gained, as the United States has historically discouraged militarizing in any way that involves nuclear weapons; South Korea would be certainly opening itself up to repercussions from its 70 year old ally, and there would be threats and dangers against it, as the modern world does not look nicely upon nuclear militarization.

Another method that can reduce the threat of a North Korean nuclear assault would be the
introduction of THAAD – short for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense – a defense system created to defend against active missiles and bombs in a certain altitude and range. Despite a furious China telling South Korea to stop, South Korea’s reply was that since China will neither cooperate nor pressure North Korea to stop their nuclear program, they would take matters into their own hands to protect themselves. The United States has supported South Korea with this, and the building process is about to start.

There have been sanctions made in different time periods, not just by South Korea, but
around the world. For example, the first sanctions against North Korea by the United Nations in 1993 seemed to work for a little while, but North Korea resumed their program not long after, presumably caring more for their nuclear engineering than for their civilians. Even now, there are sanctions in effect around the world, but North Korea does not seem to care at all.

There have been other approaches, such as the famous “Sunshine policy” made by then President Kim Dae-Jung, which got him Korea’s first Nobel Peace Prize. This policy was in effect for about 10 years, but it was ultimately considered a failure, as North Korea persisted in its nuclear weapons over the newly made friendship of the two Koreas.

The only answer on how to stop North Korea from making weapons is to ask another question, one that is seemingly totally unrelated: How can we convince China? That would be the first step into bringing one of the most unstable and unknown nuclear programs down. The denuclearization of North Korea would become the first of many steps for North Korea to open up.

In conclusion, trying to stop North Korea’s production of bombs, by dealing only with North Korea is like judging them in absentia: there is no point in doing it and nothing would be gained. From 2003 to 2009, there were several 6-party talks including both Koreas, as well as China: However, these talks were discontinued and ultimately failed. The best way to deal with this problem, in my opinion, is to approach China and negotiate with them, but only China. One of the main reasons why the talks failed was because of the conflicting needs and opinions brought up by all of the different countries. However, Korea – China talks would be a good chance to see what deals and opinions China has for Korea.

By Spencer Lee, Seoul Foreign School (SFS)

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