Zirpoli: Our complicated challenge with North Korea

Tom Zirpoli

The hot spot in the world right now is North Korea who, in the face of international condemnation and sanctions, continues their development and testing of missiles with the hope of, someday, having the capability of carrying a nuclear weapon across the Pacific Ocean. While the July 4 launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrated North Korea's capability of striking Japan or Alaska, they have not demonstrated the capacity to hit the United States mainland or place a nuclear weapon on their long-range missiles.

To say that the world's relationship with North Korea is complicated is an understatement of the challenges this nation poses, not just for the United States, but to everyone in that region, especially China and, of course, South Korea.


North Korea survived the Korean War with the United States because of the significant help it received toward the end of the war from China. Since then, China has remained a strong ally and the major trading partner for North Korea. And while China is not happy about North Korea's missile launches, neither do they want to see a collapse of North Korea's government.

First of all, it is bad enough to have U.S. military bases in South Korea, so close to their mainland. If North Korea were to collapse, would China lose the buffer that North Korea provides between them and South Korea (read: the United States)? Would a united Korea emerge with allegiance to America? Second, if the government of North Korea collapses, China is likely to see thousands of refugees crossing the 880-mile border the two nations share.

Russia shares a much smaller 11-mile border with North Korea and is especially concerned about the role of the United States in resolving this conflict. For China and Russia, while North Korea is a problem because it is causing instability in their backyards, the United States is seen as a larger global threat to their national security.

Eleanor Albert, writing for The Council on Foreign Relations, outlined the economic ties between China and North Korea. North Korea depends on China for its economic survival. China is not just North Korea's "biggest trading partner," representing about 90 percent of North Korea's international trade, according to Albert, but it is their "main source of food and energy."

China has tried to use its economic leverage to stop North Korea's missile testing, but they have their own international concerns and self-interests. According to James Reilly, a professor at the University of Sydney and writer for The Council on Foreign Relations, China "has taken some limited measures to squeeze" North Korea just this year. For example, in February, they suspended coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year. Coal is a major source of income for the North. Also, just last month they suspended fuel exports to North Korea. But how long these "suspensions" last will be the real sign of China's patience with their dependent neighbor.

While China is trying, Russia is agitating. The lack of cooperation from Russia is a major challenge for the United States and China. For example, according to Andrew Higgins, writing for The New York Times, when China suspended coal imports to pressure North Korea to stop its missile program, Russia responded by increasing coal imports from North Korea. Russia doesn't need coal from North Korea, but they are always looking for new friends and an opportunity to undermine the foreign policy and strategic goals of the United States.

One thing is clear, no one wants to see a war between North Korea and the United States. It would be impossible for the Unites States to stop or destroy all the weapons the North has pointed at South Korea. Provoking the North to attack the South would place millions of lives, including about 30,000 American troops stationed in the South, at risk. It could also draw China into the conflict as it did during the Korean War. It is a slippery slope we will hopefully not travel.

According to the Huffington Post, North Korea was the ninth nation in the world to develop nuclear weapons following (in order of the size of their arsenal) Russia, the U.S., France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India and Israel. As a sovereign nation surrounded by other nuclear powers — China, Russia, and the United States (with bases in South Korea and Japan), North Korea believes it has the right to develop the same military capabilities as their neighbors. For those who disagree, none of the options look promising. Thus, the current strategy of "strategic patience" may be the only viable choice regardless of what the United States wants.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. He is the program coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.