In the past several weeks, tensions between the United States and North Korea have escalated significantly. North Korea’s threats against Guam and its hostile response to joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises have fueled fears that confrontation could be brewing between these two nuclear powers.

The regime’s notoriously volatile nature, their recently acquired ICBM capability, and Washington’s escalatory response (including talk of preventative war) has added a heightened risk of miscalculation to an already heated rivalry.

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Washington reaps what it sows, U.S. foreign policy and the North Korean nuclear threat

However, amidst these tensions, the origin and nature of the North Korean nuclear threat have been misunderstood on a fundamental level. While North Korea is officially portrayed as a rogue and irrational country that went nuclear out of the blue, the real story is much more complicated.

It is also much less politically convenient for the corrupt and ideologically entrenched U.S. leadership behind the status quo approach towards the Kim regime.

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Washington's inability to contain the hermit kingdom’s nuclear ambitions stems primarily from the consequences of America's own actions. More specifically, North Korea's ability to present a challenge has been enabled by two staples of U.S. foreign policy, followed without question for decades. Trade With China and military interventionism.

Evaluating the threat environment, perceptions vs. reality

To see how this is the case, it is first important to establish an objective understanding of the threat environment and the context in which it exists.

North Korea is often portrayed as the #1 threat to stability, security, and US interests in Asia. Furthermore, this status is framed as a result of North Korea’s unilateral decisions. But as Sun Tzu famously wrote “all warfare is based on deception”, and the situation with North Korea is a flawless example of this.

Rarely are conflicts what they appear to be, and this applies especially to a region as volatile and strategically significant as Asia.

This is far more than a rogue regime. In fact, the defining characteristic of the whole situation is the existence of a paradox; North Korea is not much of a threat, and this is simultaneously part what makes them so dangerous.

Making sense of this confusing reality requires shifting attention away from rhetoric, and towards action. While North Korea’s threats may sound scary, the Kim regime is all bark and no bite.

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North Korea has yet to follow through on any of its threats against the US, and it does not take a military genius to understand why. Just one American Ohio class ballistic missile submarine has enough firepower to destroy North Korea. Kim Jong Un is not suicidal, in fact, quite the opposite. North Korea seems to value regime survival above all else.

It is in part because of this, that the most dangerous country to U.S.

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interests is not North Korea, but rather China. The advancement of North Korea’s capabilities and their economy’s resistance to sanctions present real concerns. But it is essential to keep these things in perspective. China’s economy is over 383 times the size of North Korea’s in terms of GDP. When adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP), it is 528.5 times the size.

North Korea’s military budget is small. But China’s is the second largest on the planet, not to mention that their nuclear capabilities are light years ahead of North Korea’s. In short, unlike North Korea, China challenges U.S. dominance and interests across the spectrum of all measures of civilizational competitiveness (military, political, economic, technological, etc.). North Korea is solely a military challenge at best, and even then, China’s capacity for armed conflict dwarfs Kim’s.

But the real elephant, or perhaps dragon in the room, is that unlike North Korea China is willing and able to back up its rhetoric with action. Even if said rhetoric is not nearly as extreme as Pyongyang’s. The South China sea dispute is the best-known example of China taking tangible, concrete steps to undermine regional security and U.S. interests.

But this is not the whole story. The communist superpower has escalated tensions with India (another nuclear power) over a border dispute and has threatened to use military force against Vietnam over oil exploration. Both are clear signs of China’s willingness to use coerce other countries.

Understanding North Korea’s larger role on the geopolitical chessboard

However, Washington remains fixated on North Korea. Though actions have been taken against China, they have only been to curb individuals and companies with direct and publicly known ties to the Kim Regime. Measures targeting China directly, have thus far been off the table. This results from the flawless execution of strategy on China’s part.

What is critical to understand about the relationship between the two communist nations is that North Korea serves as a bargaining chip for China. China uses its position as the only country with substantial control over the regime to gain concessions in exchange for cooperation with handling North Korea. These concessions include the unconditional maintenance of trade ties and looking the other way when China violates international law. North Korea’s threats in recent weeks are simply the latest example of this. For China, having a neighbor that is volatile most of the time but calms down when they require it, creates the perfect diversion away from Chinese aggression. It is in this America’s role is seen.

This is because China’s rise as a military power has been financed by their trade surplus with the US. While trade is often mutually beneficial, China is an exception because of its mercantilist trade policies. China's use of state owned companies, regulations to prevent foreign acquisitions of China's strategic industries, and currency manipulation have created the most severe example of unbalanced trade in U.S. history.

America’s trade deficit with China is over half of its total trade deficit. Unlike most other trade partners (NAFTA countries in particular), the U.S. trade deficit with China is not offset by other economic measures like input-output linkages. This has allowed China to enrich itself from trade without contributing to the growth of U.S. strategic industries or America's overall economic power.

For China, the more rich and powerful they become the more they can sustain aggressive behavior, and the more valuable a diversion becomes. U.S. trade with China has preserved North Korea’s strategic significance by enabling the circumstances that make it possible for North Korea to be used in this way. If not for China's ability to finance military aggression, such a reclusive and volatile neighbor would become a liability rather than an asset.

China-apologists are likely to object by pointing out that China has condemned Kim's nuclear program publicly and supported sanctions. But China’s assistance in helping Pyongyang circumvent sanctions, and even assist with their nuclear program tell a different story. China's ultimatum to either remain neutral or side with North Korea should conflict erupt is a clear sign of Beijing's support for the regime. No surprise considering that Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty is still in effect.

Weapons of mass destruction and U.S. intervention, an impact calculus from North Korea’s perspective

However, this isn’t just about China. North Korea is still a sovereign nation when all is said and done. They are playing China’s game because Kim Jong Un believes it is in his best interests. When it comes to the nuclear issue, North Korea is doing the exact same thing; Pyongyang believes that nuclear weapons are essential for the regime’s survival.

Thus, the challenge facing the United States and other countries who want to see a denuclearized North Korea is to convince Pyongyang otherwise. That nuclear weapons are in fact unnecessary for the regime’s survival and should be given up in exchange for sanctions relief.

But for countries like North Korea the history of U.S. military interventions serves as a cautionary tale against accepting such an exchange. While the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is a valid concern from most mainstream perspectives, the United States has frequently exploited this to cover its true motives. This often includes regime change.

Two notable examples of this are Iraq and Libya. When the United States invaded Iraq, it was officially because of an imminent threat from Iraqi WMDs. However, it later turned out that not only did Iraq not have such weapons, U.S. leaders in support of the war had fabricated evidence and overlooked key facts. The Iraq war was not about "freedom" or WMD’s, it was about oil, the petrodollar, and defense contractor profits. Most importantly, it led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

But it was Libya that made it abundantly clear, that forgoing nuclear weapons is no guarantee of survival against the US. In 2003 Muammar Gaddafi voluntarily agreed to dismantle his nation’s WMD program, including a decades long nuclear weapons program. Yet in 2011 his regime was overthrown by NATO forces, supported by the United States. Concerns over WMDs turned out to have less to do with international law and non-proliferation, and more to do with ensuring Libya never obtained an equalizer to protect itself.

In other words, U.S. military interventionism has created the perception that Washington’s reassurances are worthless when it comes to anything involving WMDs or regime change. North Korea's actions are motivated by the fear that compliance with American demands may make it yet another civilization lost to the history books at the hands of a war crazy empire.

Part of a larger pattern

But these implications are not exclusive to North Korea. They are part of broader U.S. foreign policy ineffectiveness, trade with China and military interventionism themselves the result of three prevailing assumptions. That U.S. hegemony is uncontested, multinational corporations have the best interests of the U.S. at heart, and military force is the only way to deal with rogue regimes.

These assumptions have all proven false. The rise of China has made it clear to anyone who does not have their head in the sand that U.S. hegemony is more contested than ever before. U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and countless other nations have been driven by for profit interests. Corporations have lobbied to preserve trade with China, and defense contractors have been a driving force behind America's for-profit wars and sky-high military spending. Perhaps most importantly, both things show that military force is not a one size fits all solution. Warfare is changing and has become as much about control over markets and capital as about military prowess.

America’s strategy towards with North Korea must push aside outdated corporate imperialism and embrace responsible global leadership. America's main priority must be to strengthen its power, influence, and competitiveness both in absolute terms and relative to China. North Korea must be dealt with through direct negotiations. Preventative war must be kept off the table. Most of all, the economic and military components of U.S. strategy must be aimed squarely at weakening China to the greatest extent realistically possible.

How exactly to go about this could be another article entirely, and it very well may be. But the first step is understanding what the U.S. is dealing with. Short-sighted foreign policy has led to a cycle of self-inflicted damage. North Korea is forcing us to see this for what it is.

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