Barron’s: North Korea No Longer Wants America’s Attention

February 8, 2022

by: Seong-Hyon Lee

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It’s easy to think of North Korea’s latest raft of missile tests as another attempt to get the attention of the United States. That’s not the case. The usual frame of analysis on North Korea’s behavior needs an update as North Korea now has a new foreign policy strategy. 

North Korea has conducted seven missile tests in the new year, including an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of reaching U.S. territory Guam and the U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan. Guam is home to U.S. military posts hosting long-range bombers and submarine squadrons.

North Korea continues to humble the intellects of those who study it. Donald Gregg, who served as CIA station chief in South Korea, called North Korea “the longest-running intelligence failure in the history of the U.S.

North Korea has become dinner-table topic that fascinates popular imagination with a cartoonish depiction of its obese leader in an impoverished nation, who rides on nuclear warheads. Stories of North Korean spies, money-laundering, a “pleasure squad” of young females to satisfy Dear Leader’s libido, not to mention, murder, abduction, gulags, and even the state-of-the-art cyber-hacking, have since grabbed Hollywood’s attention.

But while the outside world was enthralled by the usual North Korean intrigue, Kim Jong-un made an important foreign policy decision. 

Kim Jong-un said during a parliamentary meeting in September, “The international relations have been reduced to the structure of ‘neo-Cold War.’”  The wording, embedded in a long diatribe blaming the United States for its “hostile policy,” didn’t get much notice. But it was a significant statement. It indicates North Korea’s designation of the current state of world affairs as a new “Cold War.” And that designation came directly from the regime’s highest leader. Period. 

Just like in China, where the top leader’s words such as “Chinese Dream” or “Common Prosperity” carry national significance, the North Korean leader’s phrasing is meaningful. Kim’s diagnosis of the state of the world means a new direction in Pyongyang’s foreign policy. If he sees the current state of the world as a new Cold War, he needs a new strategy that fits new circumstances. And North Korea already had such a strategy, one that proved successful during the previous Cold War period: It became close to China. China’s coaxing played a role too.

Kim Jong-un and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held five rounds of summits in the 2018-2019 period, during which Xi characterized the two socialist countries’ relationship as “sealed in blood,” and as close as the “lips and teeth”—the two most iconic phrases from the Cold War era to denote the China-North Korea relationship. 

Importantly, with its new Cold War playbook, North Korea no longer sees the U.S. as its primary strategic focus. In the past, North Korea’s foreign policy behaviors, including its various provocations, were understood as an attempt to get the attention of the world’s sole superpower, the United States. Bluntly put, Washington was North Korea’s Plan A, of utmost strategic priority, while China, North Korea’s Cold War neighbor, was relegated to North Korea’s Plan B, of lesser significance.

The table has been turned around. China is now North Korea’s Plan A. China can meet North Korea’s needs. China’s formidable economic rise guarantees North Korea’s economic survival. The U.S.-China rivalry, which has now expanded into ideological territory, will make the socialist regime in Pyongyang feel more secure by leaning toward Beijing. So will China’s tectonic military advance. By aligning itself closely with China, North Korea has much to gain in its economic, security, ideological survival. China is North Korea’s new darling. It has money. It has power. It has the same ideological pedigree.  

Contrary to the popular imagination, North Korea, now with its new strategic line, expects little from the U.S., in any formulation of nuclear negotiation vs. economic aid. That’s a page from yesterday’s strategy. Rather, North Korea is going its own way, according to its new long-term strategic plan script. North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that stand to gain significantly from the Cold War. It’s like a virus that is optimally designed for these conditions. North Korea welcomes the new Cold War. And it wants it to last long. 

Looking ahead, as the U.S.-China rivalry deepens, China will shield North Korea from international economic sanctions and will tolerate North Korea’s nuclear and missile improvement, as long as North Korea’s armament is aimed at the United States and its allies. With the Cold War set in, Pyongyang and Beijing have resolved any strategic ambiguity. 

The new situation today should provoke soul-searching in a Biden administration that has been neglecting the North Korean issue since the Inauguration.

Seong-Hyon Lee a is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.