SPEAKING FREELY A Chinese nuke umbrella for North Korea?
By Qingshan Tan
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The most recent North Korean nuclear standoff underlines the failure of West's past attempt to denuclearize the Korean peninsula - the six-party talks. The issue remains a top diplomatic object for the US and its allies. For US, North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons would pose a grave threat to the security of Japan and South Korea, and Washington is also concerned that
North Korea will export nuclear know-how or weapons to rogue states hostile towards the US.
For China, a nuclear-armed North Korea adds uncertainty to the stability of Northeast Asia, while raising the prospect of potential nuclear arms race on the peninsula, nuclear confrontation with the West, or nuclear blackmail against South Korea.
It is time for some fresh thinking on the issue of North Korea going nuclear. To come up with a new approach requires an analysis of North Korea's motive in pursuing nuclear weapons. The North's initial effort in its nuclear programs was a out of desire for power status. Then as its nuclear programs began to attract more and more Western attention, the North realized that it could use the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip for Western economic aid.
This apprehension intensified in the mid-1990s when North Korea experienced a severe shortage of grain, resulting in a four-year famine. As its economy improved, North Korean leaders turned their attention to regime survival in the face of what was perceived as a hostile international environment.
They drew a negative lesson from the Libyan revolution in 2011, attributing the fall of the Gaddafi regime to the abandonment of its nuclear programs. They believe that the possession of nuclear weapons is the only guarantee to prevent Western sabotage of the regime. This belief makes it possible for North Korean leaders to push for the brinkmanship policy in order to fend off any attack.
For North Korea, nuclear possession is not an end, but a means. It wants to achieve a defensive end by an offensive means. For North Korean leaders, it is not of losing "face" in light of South Korean-US military exercises, it is their true belief that the US intends to overthrow their regime.
Since North Korea has limited cards in its hand, the only useful one is the nuclear card. Developing nuclear weapons is the only trump card to deal with the United States.
Both the United States and China realize the danger of a nuclear-armed North Korea, but diplomacy offers no fundamental solution to the problem. The UN Resolution 1718 and the more recently resolution imposing sanctions against North Korea have shown little effects on the regime.
US Secretary of State John Kerry wants China to put up more pressure on North in his first visit to China, but China has tried different means, including cooperating with the West by hosting the six-party talks, with no avail. But economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and military exercises can not effectively deal with the nuclear issue and force the North to give up nuclear weapons.
Besides, China does not want to see that more restrictive sanctions lead to the collapse of North Korea economically or politically. So any new approach has to address the Western concern of nuclear-armed North and China's desire for a nuclear free peninsula and to prevent the regime from collapse as well as North Korea's concern.
It would be in the interests of China to act now to preempt a possible collapse of North Korea or military crisis caused by stronger US actions in the Peninsula. The goal is to find a way that guarantees the North's security and development in exchange for its denuclearization.
Finding such a solution requires fresh thinking and good will from North Korea, China, and the United States. One solution is a Korean "Yoshida Doctrine" - the North giving up nuclear diplomacy, playing down militarism, and adopting pro-growth and peaceful developmental policy - in exchange for China's nuclear protection against any nuclear attack on North Korea and international economic aid.
North Korea could ask China to provide a nuclear umbrella to guarantee the North's security, in return, it promises to permanently give up nuclear weapons and sign on to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The key to this solution is that North Korea must clearly commit itself to denuclearization and peaceful development and foreign policy, China guarantees North's security, provides economic assistance.
This could see the North become a normal member in the international community; while the the United States could recognize the special arrangement and pledge not to sabotage the North's regime.
There is no doubt that the feasibility of this solution depends on China's acceptance and the US understanding and support. China not only has to convince itself, but also to persuade the United States. China has to be clear on two points: China does not want to expand its sphere of influence or to compete with the United States, because the end game is to bring North back into the international community; China only provides North with defensive not offensive security guarantee, again the end game is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
What does China gain from this arrangement? A non-nuclear North Korea and Korean Peninsula is in the interest of China's security and foreign policy. From the lessons of history, any tension in the Peninsula is harmful to China's security interest and forces China to make no-winning choice. Without any clear solution to the nuclear issue today, China will be dragged into later crisis.
This arrangement demonstrates China as a responsible world power. Last but not least, this solution can avoid North's collapse, a stable and peaceful neighbor is in China's interest.
How realistic is this solution? If we believe that North Korea's nuclear programs are motivated out of security concerns and regime survival, then such a solution has to be acceptable for the North. It is the most cost-effective to achieve North's objectives.
For the United States, if its objective is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula not the overthrow of the North Korean regime, then this solution allows the United States not to make a direct compromise to the regime, while resolving the nuclear issue and achieving the denuclearization objective.
As for China, the "special" relationship with North Korea determines the inescapability of China's involvement. Any issues concerning North Korea eventually become China's issue; it is impossible for China to walk away from it, whether it likes or not.
The realization of this solution will result in a win-win-win situation: the United States and China get a non-nuclear Peninsula, disperse a nuclear crisis and establish a model for dealing with future nuclear proliferation. North Korea has security guarantee and can fully engage in economic reform.
Qingshan Tan is Professor of political science, Department of Political Science, Cleveland State University, and can be reached at email@example.com
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.