In the past weeks, I have been scouring the news for information regarding the North Korean situation with China and the United states. Just as I was starting to feel I was reaching a slightly clear understanding of how complex the diplomatic situation was, the news broke. It was announced that North Korea had been working on military plans to attack Guam, an important military base that is home to over 150,000 American citizens in western Pacific.
This came as a huge shock to American citizens, most of whom are not accustomed to more than empty angry rumblings from their geopolitical opponents. Still, understanding the validity of the threat, or lack thereof, is not easy. North Korea has been threatening to destroy South Korea, and a host of other countries for over 60 years now. And yes, news coming from North Korea and China indicate this is a serious threat, but history tells us otherwise. North Korea lacks the material resources to begin a war against the United States and its allies, and if they intended to start a war, Guam would not be their target. Seoul has been threatened by Pyongyang hundreds of times. Almost daily, there are angry announcements and empty threats of how they will make a “sea of fire” of Seoul. Since the Korean War “ended” in armistice in 1953, tensions have been high, but that was 64 years ago.
My research findings all paint the same picture of China’s grip on North Korea. As one of the only countries still with direct interaction after the collapse of the Six Party Talks, China acts a gatekeeper to North Korea. Beijing keeps pressure on Pyongyang, keeping tabs on its international movements. However, since the Korean War in the 1950s, China has been an important ally to North Korea. Almost all foreign aid and interactions to North Korea come from China, after other countries realized even their food aid would never reach citizens; the regime controls every aspect of society, and would rather fatten its leaders than stop their widespread famine.
In modern times though, the power relationship has shifted from mere allies, to a misbehaving child and its parent. While Beijing takes some action against North Korea (like supporting certain United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang), it still trades with and defends Pyongyang diplomatically. This push-and-pull stance comes from China’s desire to keep North Korea from collapse in order to act as a buffer to her mainland, but still benefit from global trade with North Korea’s greatest enemies, like the United States.
This project is challenging in one simple way: there just isn’t a reliable source of information about North Korea in the global public domain. Our own media in the United States is fear-filled, and often dramatizes any news of international and domestic crises. When Pyongyang announced the success of its first long-range missile test, the U.S. news was flooded with maps of how we could possibly be attacked. China’s media is strictly controlled by the state, and often does not even mention North Korea, though Donald Trump’s recent sensationalized tweets have led to official commentary from Beijing. Statements regarding the “arrogance” of Trump’s tweets have come out, criticizing him for not understanding the fluid situation. Other global media is so removed from the situation, it often is only a simpler version of the U.S. news, with an extensive explanation for the history of the story until today.
Because the news can be so frustrating, I have begun to include nontraditional sources. Reading WikiLeaks from older North Korea-China-U.S. interactions has given me the background knowledge to be able to take common media with a grain of salt. Published books, both memoirs and exposés, often have in-depth personal insights about the daily lives of North Koreans, as underground reporters share the truth of the regime from the inside.
The most interesting nontraditional source I have found are YouTube videos. As the hauntingly dark “Official webpage of the DPR of Korea” shares, tourism and ways of visiting the country are now being offered to the world (Check out their official websites, http://www.korea-dpr.com/ and https://www.kfausa.org/ for a firsthand look at North Korean Propaganda – on a global scale). Many people take cameras with them on their “visits” to North Korea, only to be met by what appears to be a completely staged week. This has proven useful in understanding what exactly North Korea hopes to be in the eyes of the world.
Throughout this project, I have learned much about the current shifts in power balance between China, the U.S., and North Korea. While I still have much to learn because the geopolitical situation changes everyday, I am looking forward to continuing my research into the next year, and beyond. As a citizen of the United States, hoping to one day represent my nation on a global diplomatic theater, I feel it is my duty to be educated about the complexities of geopolitical conflicts in East Asia. I will never truly be done with my research on North Korea. As I want to work in South Korea post-graduation, I will stay up to date on the rapidly changing scenario.
However, I find comfort in China’s stance on the matter. If Pyongyang instigates war, Beijing will not come to her aid, as outlined in their treaties. I believe that while North Korea would fight until the end, they are too weak to start a war. We must recognize the concessions of China on North Korean policies, and understand that too hard a push from China could have tragic repercussions for the United States. Demilitarization and stabilization are the goals, but it does not appear as though they can both be achieved. China has her own interests in mind, and will always act to protect those first. If the U.S. initiates war, China will support North Korea until the end. As long as the United States continues a policy of strategic patience, Pyongyang will be unable to act.