Nowadays, all eyes are on North Korea’s alleged new-found cyber capabilities. If the recent attack on Sony Pictures’ computers really did originate there, as US officials charge, was it an act of sabotage, vandalism, terrorism or, to use neoconservatives’ favourite word (especially during the holiday season), war?
Whatever the merits of the US allegation (about which there is some scepticism), North Korea’s human-rights record has also come under renewed — and well-deserved — scrutiny. Whether this development leads anywhere — namely, to North Korea’s referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) — will depend on decisions taken by the United Nations Security Council.
Given that China and Russia — veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council — oppose action in such matters, the discussion will probably not get that far. But, at a minimum, the debate, in the words of US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, “shines a light” on North Korea’s “abysmal human-rights record”, and the need for some accounting of that record.
Countries throughout the world get away with bad human-rights records. Some get away with cross-border cyberattacks. A few even get away with maintaining nuclear programmes. But rarely does a country pursue all of them, as North Korea evidently is.
But times are changing. Anyone who has visited China lately knows that whether the Chinese ultimately — and for their own reasons — prevent North Korea from being referred to the ICC, they are fed up with their client state’s behaviour. In a part of the world where politics relies heavily on symbols, China has not invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing since he assumed power in 2012, and it appears unlikely to do so anytime soon.
China’s official explanation for this lapse is that the time is not appropriate — a line that obviously is open to interpretation and change. For now, however, it appears that China’s shunning of Kim is becoming etched in stone.
When Kim assumed power, he immediately threatened war with the US, posing with his generals beneath a map that showed missiles aimed at North America. Kim ultimately settled for another way to express his leadership: Arresting his uncle (and the regime’s China hand) at a party meeting and putting him to death. Whatever their own challenges, China’s leaders know that they cannot rely on the “Young General”.
China’s motivations in managing North Korea are complex. But, increasingly, the many issues wrapped up in the bilateral relationship are anachronistic. For China, mending relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours, which have been damaged by territorial disputes, is a higher priority. That process is already underway, as China now appears willing to address the disputes multilaterally, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Similar tensions with Japan have been allowed to fester, benefiting neither side.
But the North Korean problem is different. Assuming that China’s leaders are aware that their relationship with one of the world’s worst-behaved regimes will not further their goal of global engagement, the US should consider how it could influence Chinese policy.
Too often, China and the US address the issue of North Korea in a formulaic way, with the Chinese declaring that they “support dialogue”, while the US urges China to do more, without specifying what. For the US, the goal should be to persuade the Chinese to make deterring North Korean rogue behaviour a higher priority. That means communicating to the Chinese more clearly where North Korea stands among its own priorities.
In particular, China needs to know how the US views future arrangements on the Korea Peninsula. Of all of China’s worries about North Korea, the most serious is that regime collapse — probably followed by state failure — could be perceived as a Chinese defeat and a US victory, with Korea reunified as part of the US alliance system. Giving one another access to deep thinking on the issue could be the best means to encourage cooperation and, most important, a doctrine of “no surprises”. The Chinese today frequently discuss a policy of “great country relations” and “win-win” arrangements. The US must work with them on that concept.
Moreover, the US should encourage better relations between China and South Korea. It is widely believed in the region that the US frowns upon closer relations, as if more China in South Korea’s future means less America. In fact, there is plenty of room for everyone and the sooner China feels comfortable with the Republic of Korea as an immediate neighbour, the better for everyone.
Hollywood, human rights and cybersecurity are not issues that China is particularly comfortable addressing. But their confluence attests to the need for better channels of Sino-American cooperation on North Korea. Whatever US President Barack Obama’s administration means by the phrase “strategic patience”, there has probably been a little too much of it in recent years. The time has come for strategic reengagement with China. North Korea is not a problem that will solve itself.
— Project Syndicate, 2014
Christopher R. Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.