China won’t solve the North Korean nuclear problem

by Meghan Healy Luecke

The United States and China have fallen into a pattern when it comes to North Korean brinkmanship: the U.S. nags and China ignores. This week’s latest conflict won’t be any different. China has a strong interest in preserving the status quo. It seeks to reap the benefits of economic ties with both the North and the South, is cultivating an image in the developing world as an alternative to U.S. hegemony, and may have a lot to lose if the North Korean regime collapses. Since North Korea shelled a South Korean island last Tuesday, China has been withholding official condemnation of the North Korean act, presumably hoping the headlines will soon fade.

Time and time again, U.S. requests for a stronger Chinese reaction to provocation by North Korea have been ignored (see past nuclear tests, missile launches, and the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan earlier this year). Coaxing, begging, and bothering China have all consistently failed, and worse – they’ve highlighted U.S. weakness in the region.
For these reasons, pressuring China should not be the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy on North Korea. The United States would do well to continue pressuring China in private, but should focus publicly on what it can do with the help of its allies to address the cycle of North Korean brinkmanship. Sending a group of aircraft carriers to the Yellow Sea for the anticipated joint U.S.-South Korean exercises is a step in the right direction. Ken Lieberthaal of the Brookings Institution has suggested focusing on joint interdiction efforts with our allies to stop the flow of nuclear technology and other goods to the North. Other alternatives may include more dramatic steps, like opening a direct dialogue between the United States and the North. Whatever we choose to do, pressuring China can’t be our primary focus.

About the Author

Meghan Healy Luecke graduated from the Fletcher School in 2012 with a master’s degree focusing on security and Chinese foreign policy. She is a founder of The Fletcher Forum Online and served as its original project director and Managing Editor. She was also president of Fletcher’s International Law Society, a leader of the Boston chapter of Women in International Security, and a co-founder of Fletcher’s Diplomacy Club. While at Fletcher, New York Times reporter David E. Sanger hired Meghan to do research and writing for his 2012 book, Confront and Conceal. After completing her degree, Meghan joined the U.S. Foreign Service. She most recently worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia. Her previous State Department service included work for the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and the U.S. Embassy to France.

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