The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launches three-stage ballistic missiles, tests nuclear weapons, and sells just about everything in its increasingly destructive arsenal to other dangerous regimes.
Who is to blame for Pyongyang’s behavior? Recent pieces in Chinese state media, in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism from Beijing, contain a surprising answer.
“At a superficial level, it was Pyongyang that has repeatedly breached UN resolutions and used its nuclear program as a weapon to challenge the world community, which was considered to be unwise and regrettable,” states a Xinhua News Agency commentary titled “Time to Address Root Causes of Nuclear Crisis on Korean Peninsula.” “In reality, the DPRK’s defiance was deeply rooted in its strong sense of insecurity after years of confrontation with South Korea, Japan, and a militarily more superior United States.”
The real target of the North’s nuclear test was the US, maintains Liu Jiangyong. “On this issue, the United States, South Korea, and Japan should be blamed for the failure of their policies,” said the Tsinghua University professor to the official Xinhua agency. “Those countries should reflect on what has happened.”
Anyone reflecting on the troubled history between the US and the DPRK would realize that Beijing’s blaming Washington does not stand up to scrutiny. Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first leader and the current supremo’s grandfather, sought nuclear weapons beginning in the 1950s.
The US, in fact, had little contact with his regime after the Korean War. After signing the 1953 armistice, Washington restrained Seoul and urged limited reconciliation with Pyongyang. Moreover, America had been restrained, some would say to a fault, in dealing with serial provocations. North Korea’s acts of war—the seizing of the Navy’s Pueblo and its crew in 1968 and the downing of the EC-121 reconnaissance plane the following year, for instance—went unpunished.
Moreover, Beijing’s claim of American responsibility is hard to square with subsequent events. President Nixon’s 1969 speech in Guam, where he announced the doctrine that bears his name, made it clear that American allies in Asia could not rely on Washington for their defense. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, according to some, began in earnest after the fall of Saigon, an event that certainly made America looked less than threatening.
Ronald Reagan tried to reach out to Kim with his “Modest Initiative.” The diplomatic overtures got caught up in the first North Korean nuclear crisis, which was started by Pyongyang during the presidency of Reagan’s successor. US policy of the second George Bush may have sounded hostile to ears in Pyongyang, but it was far from belligerent in substance, especially considering the historical context. Bush may have talked about regime change, but his words are no justification for North Korean bomb-building efforts that began decades earlier.
Some analysts argue that the North initiated its nuclear arms program primarily in response to the stationing of US tactical nuclear weapons—gravity bombs, artillery shells, and landmines—in the South, but they were withdrawn beginning in 1991. And even when they were there, these weapons were part of a force structure that was defensive in nature. Both the North Koreans and the Chinese knew this.
Moreover, Kim Il Sung did not need nukes to keep Americans at bay. His odious regime was protected by the Soviet “nuclear umbrella” every minute of every day. Great Leader Kim had all the security he ever needed—and it was provided without cost. Soviet protection was in addition to North Korea’s conventional and chemical deterrent that was more than sufficient on its own.
Protected by the seemingly invincible Soviets and facing less-than-fearsome Americans, Kim did not need homemade nuclear weapons. The genesis of the DPRK bomb program is found in the martial nature of his regime. It is only natural for the world’s most militarized state to desire the world’s most destructive weaponry.
The historical record, in short, doesn’t support Beijing’s blaming Washington for North Korea’s bomb building. It has never been about America. It has always been about the hostile nature of the Kim family regime.