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U.S.-China Competition over Nuclear North Korea

The often-used description in the American mainstream media and geopolitical literature of “North Korea’s nuclear aggression” is misleading. I argue in the first section that Pyongyang’s nuclear strategy has been significantly shaped by the perceived U.S. nuclear existential threat since the early 1950s, portending a quest for a self-reliant nuclear deterrent for the DPRK. The shifting role and impact of U.S.-China competition in the course of the first and second U.S.-DPRK nuclear standoffs is explored as background for examining, in the second section, an intensified nuclear confrontation in the first half of 2017. The concluding section considers common-security engagement in charting an alternative pathway toward establishing a working peace system on the Korean peninsula.

U S -China Competition over Nuclear North Korea
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson greets the Chinese President Xi Jinping as he arrives in Florida on April 6, 2017. | AFP PHOTO / MICHELE EVE SANDBERG


The latest flare up of U.S.-DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) nuclear confrontation in mid-April 2017 is a sobering reminder that the Korean Peninsula remains the last stronghold of the Cold War. Even today, almost six and a half decades after the Korean War “ended” with an armistice accord, the Korean DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) stands out as the most heavily fortified conflict zone in the post–Cold War world. Indeed, the DMZ has acquired such security-deficit monikers as “the fuse on the nuclear powder keg in Northeast Asia,” “the scariest place on earth,” and “the last glacier of Cold War confrontation.”

With the Korean peninsula as its kinetic center, Northeast Asia (NEA) is the only international region or sub-region where the world’s four great powers (China, Russia, Japan, and the United States) uneasily meet and interact, and where their respective interests coalesce, compete, or clash. The world’s heaviest concentration of military and economic capabilities is in NEA: (1) the world’s three largest nuclear states (the United States, Russia, and China), one small nuclear state (North Korea), and three threshold nuclear states (Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan); (2) five of the world’s top ten military budgets (U.S., China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea); (3) the world’s three largest economies (U.S., China, and Japan); and (4) three of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (U.S., China, and Russia).

From the perspective of U.S.-China competition, Washington still maintains its Cold War network of bilateral alliances while Beijing has an impaired alliance with North Korea, often regarded as “an alliance in name only.” This signifies the greatest strategic change on the Korean peninsula in the post-Cold War era, giving rise to an asymmetrical nuclear confrontation between more powerful and less powerful state actors.1

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