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North Korea’s Powerful Weakness

CAMBRIDGE – When US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for their “shirt-sleeves summit” in California last month, North Korea was a major topic of conversation. The subject was not new, but the tone was.

More than two decades ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency caught North Korea violating its safeguards agreement and reprocessing plutonium. After the North renounced the subsequent Agreed Framework, negotiated by President Bill Clinton’s administration, in 2003, it expelled IAEA inspectors, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has since detonated three nuclear devices and conducted a variety of missile tests.

During those two decades, American and Chinese officials frequently discussed North Korea’s behavior, both privately and in public meetings. The Chinese consistently said that they did not want North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, but claimed that they had limited influence over the regime, despite being its major supplier of food and fuel. The result was a somewhat scripted exchange in which China and the US would accomplish little more than professing denuclearization as a shared goal.

China was sincere in expressing its desire for a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, but the nuclear issue was not its primary concern. It also sought to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime and the resulting potential for chaos on its border – not only flows of refugees, but also the possibility that South Korean or US troops could move into the North.