Give North Korea the silent treatment and talk with China instead

The last thing we want with North Korea is a war of words Photo: Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea, March 27, 2013 — Instead of responding to North Korea’s daily threats with threats of our own, Washington should try a technique that is often used against misbehaving dogs (or misbehaving people), which is to ignore them completely, and not respond to their barking with remonstrations of our own. Pyongyang should be treated to a wall of silence.

Why should the U.S. go into crisis mode every time this broken-down country makes a provocative threat that we know is hollow? By responding to their threats with our own threats, we only inflate their sense of importance. What Pyongyang wants is a shouting match, an atmosphere of crisis, which they hope will pressure Washington into talking with them directly.

The Obama Administration is correct to refuse any such direct negotiation, and to insist on a multilateral approach – the Six-Party Talks – which will involve all the major powers of the region.

But Washington can do even better by giving North Korea the silent treatment and refusing to engage them in a battle of words. Imagine how the North Koreans would feel if after a provocative threat, they receive nothing in return? How ominous and how disheartening would that be?

While ignoring North Korea, the United States should strive to maintain a steady conversation with China, as the Obama Administration is doing at the moment.

The very fact that the main ally of North Korea is talking to the United States about North Korea, without involving North Korea, is a loss for North Korea. When Premier Li Kequiang says that “there are immense common interests between China and the United States” and that “Our common interests far outweigh our differences,” the position of North Korea is further weakened.

The temptation is great to demand that Beijing commit to certain concrete acts – that they cut off their supplies of food and fuel to North Korea, and thereby pressure it into compliance, or collapse. But if China ever does this, it will be for her own interests and not as a favor to Washington. Moreover, China will almost certainly want to avoid the impression that American pressure was what made her act. Therefore, the U.S. would do better to avoid making specific demands to China, especially public ones, and even less should we make threats, which will only harm our relations with them and boost North Korea’s confidence.

Instead, Washington should try to interest Beijing in a conversation about what will happen when the regime in North Korea begins to fall. How will the two countries react to such an event? What will the U.S. do, and what will China do? Will Korea be unified? Will Seoul move its armies north? Will Washington? And if so, how close will they get to the Chinese border? These questions must be answered before the event so as to prevent any unwanted collision.

Until now, China has been reluctant to tackle these questions, and understandably so, for the very fact of such talks will come as a death sentence to Pyongyang. But the recent craziness of the North Koreans may have convinced the Chinese leadership that the survival of the Kim regime is just as risky as its collapse. And if ever the time comes to pull the plug on Kim Jung-Un, the Chinese will want to know what exactly they are getting into.  

The situation in the Korean peninsula is not yet a crisis. It may be, however, a preparation for a crisis; and Washington’s aim should be to prepare for the crisis and not precipitate it. If North Korea should continue to develop its nuclear weapons, the United States must see to it that its allies in the region remain secure. It must preserve the equilibrium. But it must do this through action – such as the strengthening of missile defense – and not through a shouting match, which will only play into North Korea’s hands.  

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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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