On Wednesday, October 18th, I had the pleasure of listening to a fantastic talk by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, an adjunct professor and director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Dr. Lewis presented on the North Korean nuclear program and how it relates to US-China relations as well as relations between all three states. I admire Dr. Lewis for his ability to explain complex topics in a simple, straightforward, and interesting manner. His insights were fascinating, and although I certainly cannot explain it as well as he did, I will attempt to summarize a couple of the main points he made.
1) We are underestimating the progress of North Korea’s nuclear program in the same way that we did the Chinese nuclear program historically.
In the 1960s, the US government severely underestimated the progress of China’s nuclear program, thinking they were much further behind than they were in reality. US officials did not believe China had the technology to develop nuclear power without assistance. When the US continued to release statements that the Chinese nuclear program was not that developed, China decided to prove to the US how far it had come, firing a missile across the country. Unfortunately, I don’t remember all the details but the message of this anecdote Dr. Lewis shared was clear–after China fired that missile, the US started to take the Chinese nuclear program seriously and increase efforts toward non-proliferation to lower the risk of a global nuclear arms race.
In the same way that we underestimated China, Dr. Lewis argues that we are now underestimating the development of the North Korean nuclear program. I can’t keep straight all the technical details Dr. Lewis shared about the particular technological advancements that the North Koreans have made, but his point was that the US consistently denies North Korea claims of these advancements. In fact, experts like Dr. Lewis and his colleagues can analyze photographs released by the North Korean regime of their nuclear technology and conclude that in fact, they are as advanced as they claim to be. This means that the US needs to be taking the threat of a nuclear North Korea much more seriously as they create missiles that can reach increasingly greater distances.
2) We are overestimating the power that China has in convincing North Korea to restrict its nuclear program.
There exists a sort of “common knowledge” in the US that China is North Korea’s closest ally. Although it is not true, many think that China assists the North Korean nuclear program. Many Americans assume that the two are close to the extent that China exhibits a significant amount of influence over North Korea. In fact, Dr. Lewis argues, while China may have more influence over North Korea than the US, ultimately no country has significant influence over North Korea. The ideology that the North Korean regime enforces upon its public and advertises to the world at large does not allow room for influencing powers to exist. Although North Korea is reliant on China for trade and goods, China is just as susceptible as the US to nuclear threats. In a way, the US has been reliant on the idea that China can influence and control North Korea, when in fact this is not the case. Dr. Lewis warns that this overestimation of China’s power is dangerous because it may lead our administration to take more risky action than it would otherwise, thinking that China can “handle” the North Korean reaction.
I feel like I have done an embarrassingly poor job at explaining Dr. Lewis’ points, but I wanted to make a post on this subject because I find it so fascinating. North Korea is an isolationist nation, cut off for the most part from the rest of the world, yet it plays an important role in international relations. Its nuclear program is an important aspect of relations between the US and China. Furthermore, North Korea’s possible actions do not just affect the US and China, but also Japan and of course South Korea as well. If we want to stretch this even further, the North Korean problem is often considered a global issue that must be dealt with by organizations such as the United Nations. If the US or another country were to take unilateral action of some type against North Korea without consent from the UN, it could go so far as to create rifts within the organization. It is likely that the majority of the globe will have to be united in any action it takes to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem for significant change to be achieved. Taking all of this into consideration, North Korea is a volatile and unpredictable force in Asia that we need to keep a close eye on.