Will Americans Mind Closer Ties Between North Korea and China?

Kim-Jong-il-greets-Chinas-001Kim Jong-Il’s visit to China this week is another reminder for Americans that we have very little ability to dictate policy to North Korea.   It represents a tangible erosion of our sphere of influence; it is a sign of China’s ascendancy.

Regardless of whether the six-party talks continue, China will always be the one with the main influence on and self-interest in North Korea’s future stability.  China doesn’t want to see a unified Korea anytime soon, and it doesn’t want to deal with turmoil on its border that could lead to a massive refugee crisis.

With leadership change on the horizon, it seems likely that Kim Jong-Il will seek to set a foreign policy course and domestic development trajectory for his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to implement.    By providing economic security (and opportunity), China can also seek to dissemble any nuclear infrastructure that North Korea has established – but it should be noted that border security, not nuclear threats, are China’s main concern.  China is also motivated to remove the nuclear threat, but its methods and timeline are inherently different from ours.

The other variable to contend with will be the American public’s perception/opinion of this evolution and what the reaction of our politicians will be.  For example, it seems highly unlikely that the US will ever want to see the six-party talks end (despite a lack of progress over 7 years).  Such an ending would result in too many headlines.  Fortunately, China doesn’t usually seek to be the sole actor responsible for extra-territorial security.  So while reality will be China as the main actor, perception will focus on a face-saving multi-lateral management.

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