Ask a Scholar: Can North Korean Rhetoric Lead to Improved US-Chinese Relations?

Glenn Ricketts

Dear Ask a Scholar: Will North Korean rhetoric ultimately lead to improved relations between China and the United States?

Answered by Glenn M. Ricketts, who has served as Public Affairs Director of the National Association of Scholars since 1989. He is also Professor of Political Science at Raritan Valley Community College in Somerville New Jersey, where he has taught since 1982.  He graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia and received his Ph.D in Political Science from the University of Chicago.

North Korea is the world’s single surviving totalitarian Stalinist society, an institutional arrangement that’s often difficult for contemporary Americans to fathom.  Central to it all is a cult of the “supreme leader” –currently Kim Jong Un - who receives constant adulation approaching worship.  To that you should add ceaseless bombardment with party propaganda that fosters state-of -siege psychology, hyper-militarization, bolstered by a nuclear arsenal, and ubiquitous, numbing control by an all-pervasive political police force.  You really need to watch what you say, no matter where you are, lest some plain-clothes thought enforcer should overhear you.  If you’ve seen any of the rare candid photos of ordinary folks in North Korea, you’ll catch the fact that they’re not smiling.  Small wonder.  

The “rhetoric” of such a country, not surprisingly, is relentlessly belligerent, aggressive and confrontational. It’s often as much a reflection of the rulers’ need to justify their harsh domestic dictatorship, with the extraordinary sacrifices and hardships it imposes on the North Korean populace, as it is objective external circumstances.  

But North Korea’s actual foreign policy has often acted out its aggressive propaganda.  For several decades, its leaders have been remarkably willing to push the envelope in periodic confrontations with its southern neighbor, the United States or Japan. The Pyongyang regime has adroitly played the “nuclear card,” and has effectively held the US and its ally in Seoul at bay with threats to annihilate its southern neighbor in the event of a second Korean war. That probably explains the North’s striking boldness in occasional threats directed at Japan or its defiance of the Bush administration’s line-in-the-sand stance banning the sale of a nuclear reactor to Syria.  Israel destroyed the reactor, but Washington also returned meekly to the conference table with Pyongyang a short time later, as if the provocation hadn't occurred. 

How does all of this affect US-Chinese relations?  So far, the PRC has not seemed terribly troubled by the frequent saber-rattling of its pit bull ally, although it has happily stepped in to mediate the recurrent crises instigated by Pyongyang. A nice return for this comes in the form of useful prestige as a peacemaker, with enhanced stature in the international community. Not surprisingly, there’s no indication that China is inclined to reproach its cocky partner and seek greater accommodation with the US.,or that anything will change, should Pyongyang initiate another round of Russian roulette. There's apparently little incentive for them to do so.  Beyond carping about North Korea's brinkmanship, Washington has been unwilling to push back, or even suggest that China's enabling role carries any consequences.  As a result, China's leaders, no doubt also aware that they own a sizable portion of America's international debt, seem unconcerned about the prospect of occasional tension with the United States.  Past experience tells them that such tempests blow over pretty quickly, and that they can expect to come out ahead.


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