The United States, China, and the North Korean issue: Why does Beijing cooperate closely with the United States over North Korea?

Date August 25, 2003
Speaker Robert G. SUTTER(Visiting Professor, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University)


Questions and Answers

Q: China wishes to avoid Japan going nuclear and instability on the Korean peninsula. Chinese cooperation is a strategic calculation. And some argue that the US is using Japan's nuclear card to get China to cooperate?

A: I agree that these security concerns exist, but I do not think that the US uses the possibility of a nuclear-armed Japan to convince China to cooperate. It would be out of character for the Bush Administration and it would weaken the trust between the US and Japan. Yes, war and refugees would be issues on the Korean peninsula, but so would the consolidation of American power.

Q: What is the definition of regime change? Does it include killing Kim Jong Il and his family? Is a surgical strike of North Korea an option? Is there a tacit understanding between the US and China that China will not retaliate if the US attacks North Korea?

A: The key actor is North Korea, not China, and it would be too dangerous to conduct a surgical operation given the amount of North Korean firepower aimed at Seoul. The existence of a North Korean nuclear program would be insufficient to prompt a US attack. It would take a North Korean transfer of plutonium to terrorists to change the calculation.

Q: South Koreans tend to talk down the seriousness of the North Korean nuclear program. They seemed more concerned about reunification. What can the US and Japan do?

A: The trend is in the right direction and is therefore improving. The US has been willing to re-deploy its troops on the peninsula, which has led the South to be more careful. South Koreans already live under daily threat from the North, so a North Korean nuclear arsenal would only represent a marginal increase in threat. The North's conventional arsenal is already a big deterrent. Common interests will push the US and South Korea together.

Q: What are the prospects of China-Taiwan reconciliation?

A: Of all its neighbors, China has been the least accommodating with Taiwan. While there has been some economic cooperation, there is a lot of political friction. Beijing is very much against Chen Shui-bian. If the opposition were elected, Beijing would be able to work with Taiwan. If Chen were re-elected, I am not sure what Beijing would do; perhaps they will just have to come to terms with him.

Q: Do you expect anything meaningful to come out of the six party talks this week?

A: No. Keep talking is my most optimistic scenario. I was an intelligence officer for many years and I can tell you, while the prospects of a nuclear-armed North Korea sets TV commentators' hair on fire, policymakers will dryly ask, So what? What does this mean? A North Korean nuclear program does not change much - it is manageable.

Q: People talk about the danger of instability on the Korean peninsula; but I think it has been unstable for 35 years. The only thing new is its nuclear capability. The introduction of nuclear weapons did not change much in the calculus of the India-Pakistan conflict.

A: That North Korea has nuclear weapons is a big deal, but it is not something to go to war over. There is a proliferation issue and there is a war on terrorism. The problem is that mutual assured destruction (MAD) does not work on terrorists because they do not have a state on which one can retaliate.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.