China Can’t Solve the North Korea Problem. So Who Can?

Since 4 July 2017, when North Korea tested a ballistic missile, the world’s focus has been on North East Asia and how to resolve this current crisis. The North Korean nuclear program’s sudden successes came as a shock. However, it was simply a matter of time until these technological advancements were achieved, as the technology required is no longer cutting edge and the North’s nuclear ambitions and missile development program are already several generations old.[1] At this point, the U.S. and the North are locked in a war of words, while outside powers such as China and Russia urge calm and a return to civil relations. Some now see conflict on the Korean Peninsula as inevitable and believe only China can resolve this confrontation without bloodshed.[2] This is wrong.

This viewpoint not only misrepresents China’s aims in the region and its relationship with North Korea, but also fails to understand the North’s strengths and weaknesses and the long term aims of America and its regional allies. I question the wisdom of hoping China can resolve the Crisis and instead look for alternative solutions. There are three reasons China is believed to hold the solution to dealing with North Korea. These include the idea that China is acting as a regional mediator; that it is in a position to demand North Korea exercise restraint; and that China will join the U.S. in imposing sanctions on the North.

First, is it even in China’s interest to restrain North Korea? Maybe. On the one hand North Korea’s antagonistic behaviour is likely to harden the attitudes of South Korea and Japan, potentially leading to them investing in greater conventional military resources or even nuclear weapons if they lose faith in American security guarantees. This would frustrate China’s bid for regional hegemony. At the same time, North Korea’s attempt to decouple U.S. security from that of Japan and South Korea could lead to South Korea and Japan looking to other nations for security guarantees particularly, their major economic partner, China.[3] Indeed, South Korea has been reluctant to deploy the American THAAD missile defence system because it fears the loss of Chinese trade, even though THAAD might protect it from the North’s missiles.[4] Overall, the North’s belligerence not only distracts the U.S. from countering Chinese ambition in other theatres, such as the South China Sea or Indian Ocean, but also could cause American allies to look towards China for their security. While China does not want a war on the Korean Peninsula, a level of confrontation there could continue to serve its interests.

...the North’s belligerence not only distracts the U.S. from countering Chinese ambition in other theatres, such as the South China Sea or Indian Ocean, but also could cause American allies to look towards China for their security...

Second, even if China decides it is in its interest to restrain the North, is restraint possible? Probably not. The first hurdle the Chinese leadership would have to overcome is the internal politics of the Communist Party, within which traditionalists advocate continued support to North Korea.[5] If this political difficulty could be overcome, China would still lack the physical means to restrain the North. While China is the North’s principal ally, this is alliance is in name only.[6] The two have had repeated diplomatic spats and the lack of high level visits between the two suggests China has little soft power to wield against the North. Trade and sanctions are often touted as the main way China can exercise power over North Korea, as 90% of the country’s trade is with China. Additionally, China is the North’s main oil supplier, and despite new sanctions will still export up to “two million barrels of refined petroleum” to North Korea next year.[7] However, cutting off the North’s trade is not as easy as hoped, in fact many North Korean businesses operate clandestinely overseas furnishing the Kim regime with wealth.[8] Indeed, a mixture of illicit activities, like drug smuggling, combined with sending workers overseas has provided the regime with hidden revenue streams.[9] Furthermore, Russia could provide an alternative supply of oil or other goods to North Korea, perhaps in an attempt to complicate life for the U.S. or China, as Russia regards the later as a threat in the Far East.[10] Stopping this hidden economy, as well as the use of ransomware cyber attacks, would be very challenging, and efforts to date have only had a limited effect.[11] Moreover, severing outside trade would likely make the people more reliant on the Kim regime as its patronage will become even more important without outside wealth entering the country.

Even if it were possible to cut external oil supplies to North Korea, this is unlikely to restrain their behaviour. As Vladimir Putin recently said, the North Koreans would rather “eat grass” than relinquish their nuclear weapons.[12] Indeed, having witnessed the fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, it seems unlikely the North Korean leadership would give up their nuclear weapons under hostile pressure.[13] Moreover, the North Korean regime’s history of finding alternatives to oil, or simply going without, mean the impact of an oil embargo would be more limited than is often thought.[14] It is likely the North would have time to start using coal liquefaction as a replacement or instead exploit potential oil and liquid natural gas reserves in the North Korean territory.[15]

Finally, allowing China to become the regional mediator in a crisis this large will be seen as the beginning of the decline of U.S. regional influence. This decline of influence has already been felt due to the Trump administration’s international disengagement and has allowed powers like China to play a larger role.[16] Indeed, China is not only using established organisations to cement its own power, but is building new institutions to further challenge Western leadership of the world order.[17] The North Korean crisis is ultimately a problem successive American administrations have failed to resolve, and while China and other international players should have a role, America must take the lead to avoid reputational costs and greater international Chinese influence.

...allowing China to become the regional mediator in a crisis this large will be seen as the beginning of the decline of U.S. regional influence...

So if China isn’t the answer that is? Ultimately any answer must calm tensions with the North and prevent major conflict with the end goal of at least maintaining status quo relations on the Korean Peninsula. The first step in achieving this is for the U.S. to open a dialogue with the North without prior conditions. Talking to Kim and his generals is the best way to avoid a disastrous miscalculation by either party, as further sanctions or military posturing seem unlikely to compel the North to change its behaviour. However, the use of force against Korea should be very much on the table. The North should be under no illusions that nuclear weapons give it a free hand on the peninsula.

Indeed it should be made clear that use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons of any form against another nation state would result in the topping of the Kim regime. The North Korean nuclear weapons are for regime survival and its elites are not about to use them unless they fear they will be unseated, as any first use would result in nuclear retaliation.[18] Therefore, it should be stressed that the U.S. and the world will not seek to topple the North Korean regime unless conflict became unavoidable. Over the long term, sanctions could be scaled back to normalise relations between North and South while seeking reductions in the North’s nuclear weapons. This may seem ridiculous, but the most productive freeze on the North Korean nuclear weapons programme occurred when sanctions were reduced during the Clinton administration.[19] Negotiations will be a long and difficult process, and may stall several times, but is the best option to resolve the crisis in the long term without resorting to bloodshed, as sanctions seem unlikely to suddenly succeed.

While some might view reduction of sanctions as appeasement, it is simply the best of a bad set of options. Some might instead advocate a preventive strike against the Kim regime and its nuclear weapons, rather than attempting to negotiate. While possible, this should be an option of last resort for several reasons. While the fuelling time of the North’s liquid fuel missiles gives a window for air power or Special Forces to locate and destroy them on the ground, this window is slim.[20] Therefore, it is possible that some North Korean missiles would make it into the air headed for South Korea, Japan, or the U.S. While THAAD has shown success in testing, its actual utility is questionable, as so far it has not been tested in conditions that approximate war, but rather against lone missiles in good firing conditions.[21] As North Korea could possess anywhere from thirty to sixty nuclear weapons it would be difficult to be certain that THAAD could shoot down every one, especially during a major conflict, when other missiles would be in the air.[22] Furthermore, Seoul’s proximity to the Korean border makes it an easy target for the North’s artillery, so even if no nuclear weapons detonated, the South Korean capital would still face massive devastation.[23] Finally, while it might be possible to topple the regime, then what? The U.S. and South Korea would be left with a massive nation-building project and the near impossible task, given the confusion created by refugee flows and conflict after the regime fell, of preventing the North’s extensive chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons arsenals from dispersing to other would-be dictators or non-state actors.

To conclude, looking to China for the solution on North Korea is flawed, as China lacks the means and motivation to address the current crisis. Instead the U.S. and South Korea must, from a position of strength, negotiate with the North Korean regime to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The alternatives are further sanctions, which are likely to fail, or military action, which would open a Pandora’s Box of war, instability, and possible proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

Colum Hawken is a postgraduate student at the University of Birmingham, and the Principal Administrator of the Phoenix Think Tank. The views expressed are his own and do not represent any organisation he is affiliated with.

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Header image: Korean War Memorial in Pyongyang, North Korea | CSIS Asia Program


[1] M. Horowitz, “How surprising is North Korea’s nuclear success? Picking up where proliferation theories leave off,” War on the Rocks, 6 September 2017.  

[2] T. Phillips, “China is angry, but what can it do about North Korea?” The Guardian, 4 September 2017.

[3] M. Rapp-Hooper, “Decoupling is back in Asia: a 1960s playbook won’t solve these problems,” War on the Rocks, 7 September 2017.

[4] R. Kelly “The Real Reason China Wants South Korea to Ditch THAAD,” The National Interest, 13 July 2017.

[5] H. Grisley, “China’s Key to Nuclear Restraint,” The Intelligence Brief, 5 September 2017.

[6] D. Cook, “China’s Thinning Patience” The Phoenix Think Tank, 15 August 2017.

[7] J. Sharman, “China could slash oil exports to North Korea following nuclear test, says analysts,” The Independent, 5 September 2017; Anon, “China limits oil trade to North Korea and bans textile trade,” BBC News, 23 September 2017.

[8] J. Berlinger and Z. Cohen, "The secrets behind Kim Jong Un’s personal piggy back,” CNN, 21 June 2017.

[9] T. Phillips, “100,000 North Koreans sent abroad as ‘slaves’.” The Telegraph, 20 February 2015; A. Taylor, “Kim Jong-un Estimated To Have Up To $5 Billion In Secret Overseas Accounts,” Business Insider, 13 March 2013. 

[10] D. Tirnoveanu, “Russia, China and the Far East Question,” The Diplomat, 20 January 2016.

[11] B. Farmer, “WannaCry ransomware attack ‘from North Korea’ says UK and US,” The Telegraph, 15 June 2017; D. Choi, “Russian smugglers are reportedly undercutting sanctions against North Korea with secret aid,” Business Insider, 12 September 2017.

[12] S. Osborne, “Putin: North Koreans will ‘eat grass but not give up nuclear programme’,” The Independent, 5 September 2017.

[13] A. Lankov, “The inconvenient truth about North Korea and China,” The Washington Post, 15 June 2017.

[14] P. Musgrave and Y. Liou, “Sorry, an Oil Embargo Won’t Lead to North Korea’s Capitulation,” The Diplomat, 9 September 2017.

[15] R. Mills, “Pressure on North Korea could backfire with coal,” The National, 10 September 2017; A. Fensom “Could North Korea Be The Next Energy Superpower?” The National Interest, 1 December 2015.

[16] C. Lynch and E. Groll, “As U.S. Retreats From World Organizations, China Steps in to Fill the Void,” Foreign Policy, 6 October 2017.

[17] F. Holmes, “China Challenges Dollar Hegemony With New Infrastructure Bank,”  Forbes, 6 April 2015.

[18] V. Jackson, and H. Suh, “The Biggest Myth About North Korea,” The National Interest, 9 July 2015; R. York, “Will North Korea ever use its nuclear weapons?” The Guardian, 31 October 2014.

[19] A. Taylor, “The slow death of the nuclear deal with North Korea,” The Washington Post, 6 Jan 2016.

[20] A. Panda, and V. Narang, “North Korea’s ICBM: A New Missile and a New Era," The Diplomat, 7 July 2017. 

[21] F. Karimi, “US tests defense system after North Korea missile launch,” CNN,  31 July 2017; M. Stone, “Lack of real-world testing raises doubts on U.S. missile defences,” Reuters, August 9 2017.

[22] D. Rlechmann, and M. Pennington, “Here’s Why It’s Hard to Pin Down the Actual Size of North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal,” Time, 18 August 2017.

[23]  K. Mizokami, “Could North Korea Annihilate Seoul with Its Artillery,” The National Interest, 25 April 2017.