North Korea: is there a way out? – Interview with Jonathan Pollack

Dr. Jonathan Pollack is the director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. A specialist on East Asian international politics and security, he has published extensively on Chinese political-military strategy, U.S.-China relations, the political and security dynamics of the Korean Peninsula, and U.S. strategy and policy in Asia and the Pacific, including his latest book, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security (May 2011). During the summer, the Consul interviewed Dr. Pollack for his opinions on North Korea and its relations with China and the rest of the world.

The Consul: In June, Xi Jinping met with President Obama in California and South Korean president Park Geun-hye in China. What do you think are the impact of these meetings on North Korea-China relations?

Pollack: I think that the two meetings reflect a really big shift in Chinese calculations. Many people have long wondered why China seems as tolerant as it has appeared towards North Korea, given North Korea’s dependence on China and given the fact that a lot of North Korean’s actions were harming what the Chinese see as their critical interests. The very fact of a) discussing these issues openly with Obama in California and then b) hosting Madam Park for a full state visit and describing her as an old friend of the Chinese people – when young Mr. Kim has not been to China and not described as an old friend of China – reflects what I believe is a progressive shift in the strategic underpinning of China’s relationship with the two Koreas, because Chinese interests on the peninsula are increasingly weighted towards the south rather than the north. A lot of it is economic, but I think it goes deeper. North Korea for everyone is a headache and a potential nightmare, but China is becoming much more aware of how North Korean behavior undermines China.

The Consul: Earlier this year, Kim Jong-un invited NBA star Dennis Rodman, imitating the famous Ping Pong Diplomacy between China and the U.S. It ended up not having a good effect. How would you compare China in the 1960s and North Korea today?

Pollack: Superficially there’s a real parallel between China from 50 years and North Korea today. But ever since Deng Xiaoping, China has tried to get North Korea to shift towards market economy, and it has failed every time. You could say that China at the time and North Korea today are internationally isolated with queue economic problems, but I think the difference between the two cases is that the leadership in North Korea is exceedingly uneasy about the implication of letting outside world in. You could say for many years the same was true for China, but that era has passed. North Korea is a damaged society, but it’s also a system of dynastic rule by one family and those close to it.

Also, North Korea is a small state with a population of 23 million people. It’s not gigantic system like China.  But there is still a siege mentality in North Korea – they defined themselves much more in terms of how outside actors in their judgment threaten them in a variety of ways, because the ability to categorize the international environment as very threatening to them justifies and legitimizes them as a state in their internal rules. The divergence between how China approaches questions of its own economic development and its relations with the outside world and how North Korea approaches it really are striking.

The Consul: You mainly talked about the different approaches they took – different domestic mentality. What do you think about the international difference – for example, at the time there was no non-proliferation agreement, while today there is a more mature international system. Do you think that makes a difference?

Pollack: In some sense, yes. Ironically of course North Korea under great pressure signed the non-proliferation treaty in 1985. They are the only state ever to withdraw from it. They can try to replicate Ping Pong Diplomacy, but Dennis Rodman was a bad joke. North Korea is always looking for ways that can legitimize its standing. But the situation was just different. Even when China was economically backward, it was strategically significant in a way that North Korea is not and cannot be. North Korean significance or relevance is mainly its ability to cause great harm through its actions whether in the immediate contexts of the Korean peninsula or in the larger international scale.

The breakthrough has to be consistent unambiguous evidence from the leaders in the north that they are prepared to explore different kinds of relations with the outside world. They would have to make clear their willingness to forgo their development of their weapons. But that’s something they’re unprepared to do in any way of reforms. They want respectability, however defined, but they also still believe that they must retain and even expand their nuclear capacity. This is not an acceptable proposition to the U.S. and to China. People say the U.S. should reach out to them, but the issue would still be: what is the attraction that North Korea would hold for outside actors to achieve their goals there?

If you had a significant foreign presence in the north, this would undermine the regime, there’s no doubt. So what they do is when they do elicit any kind of support, including from China, they isolate it, they pursue what I call an enclave strategy. It’s true that China has presence economically in North Korea, but it’s not in any sense translated into any political advantage for China. I think that’s understood in Beijing, but for the Chinese leadership to truly come to terms with reality has been something that has waxed them for a long time.  But certainly I think although there might have been a time in China-North Korea relations that the north could be seen as a strategic asset to China, those days have passed. And I think the Chinese understand that. It might also inhibit China’s peaceful development. North Korea’s engaging in threatening behaviors towards its neighbors, including Japan and South Korea, and that enables the US to now justify and legitimize its continued security role. That is potentially a bigger headache to China.

The Consul: Do you think this is a result of integration into the international system?

Pollack: I think that’s a very large part of it. For states to prosper and to have a long term future, you have to educate your citizens, you have to link up to the outside world – you cannot fence yourself off from the outside world. That’s basically what North Korea does. The exception is when they go out and search for aid, and they have been, in some measures, rather successful in doing that for a long time, first with the Soviet Union and then with China. For a time, Japan was a major trading partner with the north. At times the north has got significance assistance from South Korea and from the U.S. If you look at the 1970s, they looked out to the western Europeans and entered in to contractual relations with those countries. They imported a lot of industrial technology and goods from the west, but they never repaid any of them. So they’re really not what we call the normal state. They are suffering from the long term deficit of what they did, and they haven’t found a way out yet.

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More interviews with the China experts from the Brookings Institution:

Cross the Taiwan Strait – Interview with Richard Bush

The Rule of Law in China – Interview with Cheng Li

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