North Korea: Outmaneuvering Everyone Else

Commentary No. 454, August 1, 2017

It is evident that North Korea is the most unpopular regime in the world today. Virtually all other regimes would do anything they could to force North Korea to change its policies, both internally and externally in the modern world-system. Yet they cannot seem to be able to do very much about North Korea’s policies – indeed, almost nothing at all.

How has this regime been able to ignore all the punitive measures the United Nations, the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea have voted, and even implemented? The basic consideration of all those hostile to the North Korean regime has been fear of what North Korea might do if pushed too far. We need however to distinguish between fear of its possible actions internally and fear of its actions externally.

North Korea is far from being the only regime that mistreats in multiple ways those who oppose the regime. Quite the contrary! Mistreatment of opposition forces is everyday activity all across the globe. What distinguishes North Korea from all the other mistreators of opposition is the viciousness of the regime’s behavior. In the Kim dynasty that has now lasted three generations, the one today in power seems the quickest to react, and in the ultimate death-dealing fashion. This might be interpreted as a sign of the regime’s insecurity. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the motive, it seems a reality, which leads its neighbors to hesitate to provoke it further.

This fear by other regimes of North Korean behavior internally is however far less than their fear that, in the external arena, North Korea might one day utilize nuclear weapons, either deliberately or inadvertently. Most other countries have said this publicly. For this reason, most other countries have enacted various sanctions against the North Korean regime for its failure to respond to the pressures to change policies. North Korea just ignores them.

One way of understanding why the North Korean regimes is able to be so impervious to all the pressures is to think about what would happen the day after, either internally or externally. Suppose the North Korean regime were to collapse and be no more. What would come next? This is particularly worrisome for China and South Korea.

What both China and South Korea fear most is a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime. China and South Korea envisage a massive movement of North Koreans into China and South Korea. They consider such a movement as almost impossible to stop, or even limit in size. The consequences for the internal politics of China and South Korea would be major, leading perhaps to destabilizing China’s unity and South Korea’s internal order.

Both China and South Korea have lost confidence that the United States would or could intervene in any significant way. The United States becomes thus an irrelevant factor in their political decisions. This in turn creates a change of situation for the neighboring countries. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all refrained from becoming nuclear powers on the assumption that the United States would be their nuclear shield. Once they no longer believe this, they will feel the need to create their own nuclear shield.

This in turn will affect the decisions of the regimes in southeast Asia and Australasia. They will have either to create their own nuclear shields or rely on a Chinese shield. To the extent that these countries become reliant on China, the major geopolitical loser will be India. The acute competition between China and India will lead India to place even more emphasis on increased collaboration with the United States, even though the United States will be as unreliable a partner for India as it is for the countries of northeast Asia.

The greatest benefit of these realignments will be to Iran, whose links with China, already considerable, will be intensified. This will unsettle Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who in turn may think of proceeding to nuclear armaments, even though they are far from having the technical ability to proceed with any speed. Despite this, they will need to do something, or face internal disorder.

In this new situation, it will be Russia that can take most advantage of everyone else’s discomforts. They are already doing so, by refusing to implement the sanctions with North Korea. They are also doing this by replacing the United States in the Arab/Moslem zone as the power most able to broker political compromises.

One could go on, discussing consequences for Indonesia, for Turkey, for Iran and Syria, and for western Europe. But all of this explains why North Korea is able to pursue its own path as it is doing. One might note the irony that the world’s least popular regime is in a sense its strongest because most autonomous. It has the strength that derives from everyone else’s fear of the day after.

North Korea has no interest in a nuclear conflict. The regime knows it would not survive one. What North Korea wants is a guarantee from the United States – its perceived unremitting enemy – (1) of recognition as a legitimate nuclear power and (2) that it will abstain from further interference in North Korean internal politics.

The only thing that might reduce the risk of nuclear chaos is an acceptance by the United States of the limits of its own geopolitical power and direct negotiations with North Korea. As of now, neither President Trump nor the U.S. Congress is ready to make such a radical move. The question nonetheless is how much longer the United States will take to swallow this geopolitical reality.