16
Jul

By Joseph S. Nye

NK

When US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for their “shirt-sleeves summit” in California last month, North Korea was a major topic of conversation. The subject was not new, but the tone was.

More than two decades ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency caught North Korea violating its safeguards agreement and reprocessing plutonium. After the North renounced the subsequent Agreed Framework, negotiated by President Bill Clinton’s administration, in 2003, it expelled IAEA inspectors, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has since detonated three nuclear devices and conducted a variety of missile tests.

During those two decades, American and Chinese officials frequently discussed North Korea’s behavior, both privately and in public meetings. The Chinese consistently said that they did not want North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, but claimed that they had limited influence over the regime, despite being its major supplier of food and fuel. The result was a somewhat scripted exchange in which China and the US would accomplish little more than professing denuclearization as a shared goal.

China was sincere in expressing its desire for a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, but the nuclear issue was not its primary concern. It also sought to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime and the resulting potential for chaos on its border – not only flows of refugees, but also the possibility that South Korean or US troops could move into the North.

Torn between its two objectives, China placed a higher priority on preserving the Kim family dynasty. That choice gave rise to a seeming paradox: North Korea gained surprisingly powerful influence over China.

North Korea has what I call “the power of weakness.” In certain bargaining situations, weakness and the threat of collapse can be a source of power. To take a well-known example, if you owe a bank $1,000, the bank has power over you; but if you owe the bank $1 billion, you may have considerable bargaining power over the bank. China is, in this sense, North Korea’s over-exposed banker.

As a result, China has tried to persuade North Korea to follow its market-oriented example. But, with the Kim regime terrified that economic liberalization would eventually provoke demands for greater political freedom, China’s influence over the regime is limited. As a Chinese official once told me in an unguarded moment, “North Korea has hijacked our foreign policy.” Read more…

Joseph S. Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University.

As published in www.project-syndicate.org on July 11, 2013.

Comments

No comments yet.

Leave a Comment

*

We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept