Why Is North Korea Our Problem?

Why Is North Korea Our Problem?

By Robert Robb - April 5, 2013

As tensions mount, this question is being asked too infrequently: Why is North Korea primarily a U.S. problem?

At the moment, it is inescapably a U.S. problem. The leader of the country is threatening to lob nukes at us. We may doubt his seriousness or capabilities. Nevertheless, the threat cannot be ignored.

But did it have to end up this way?

North Korea is an extortionist regime. It sable-rattles at least in part to get other countries to give it stuff to stop.

The United States, under both the Clinton and Bush II administrations, played North Korea’s game. Since 1995, U.S. taxpayers have given North Korea over $1 billion in food and energy assistance, supposedly in exchange for it mothballing its nuclear programs.

North Korea poses a more credible threat to South Korea and Japan than to the United States. But a threat to those countries is, at least in some respects, a threat to the United States, since we have provided both countries with security guarantees – a commitment reiterated and made explicit recently by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Why is it in U.S. interests to make a threat to them automatically a threat to us that we have to handle?
South Korea has twice as many people as North Korea and an economy that’s 40 times larger. Japan has a population five times that of North Korea and an economy more than 100 times larger.

Both South Korea and Japan have ample resources to provide for their own security, particularly with respect to any conventional threat posed by North Korea.

There are two complicating factors: China and the North Korean nukes.

The North Korean extortionist regime would collapse without China propping it up. China keeps it alive in part out of a domestic fear of a giant refugee headache if it failed. But also as a strategic buffer against perceived encroachment by the United States.

The Obama administration has famously pivoted to the Asian Pacific. China perceives that this is to contain its regional influence. The administration unpersuasively denies this. What other regional strategic threat is there that would warrant an ongoing greater U.S. military presence?

China’s neighbors worry that it has hegemonic ambitions. But the other major powers in the region – India and Australia in addition to South Korea and Japan – collectively roughly match China in population, economic size and current military spending. Except for India, the other regional powers also have GDP per capita about three times higher than China’s. That means that they have greater capacity to enhance military capabilities than China, if necessary.

Without an oversized U.S. presence and role, China’s calculation regarding North Korea might be different. North Korea is a drain on China’s resources. South Korea and Japan are a $200 billion export market for it.

The U.S. position is the fewer nuclear powers in the world the better. So, we extend our nuclear deterrent to allies facing a nuclear threat. We don’t want even more good guys to have nukes.

But making that deterrent credible and unexercised requires us to get involved in virtually any regional dispute involving a nuclear bad guy.

If the United States had more robustly developed missile defense capabilities over the last decade or so, we might be in a position to argue to good guys (or even not so good guys) facing nuclear bad guys that missile defense was a sufficient deterrent. But we’ve slow-walked missile defense development and that’s a claim currently open to doubt.

If bad guys are going to proliferate, and if missile defense provides insufficient assurance, the United States may need to rethink its view that no new good guys, regardless of circumstances, should go nuclear. A nuclear South Korea and Japan would pose no threat to the United States, but it might relieve us of the need to truck with the likes of North Korea.

It’s been six decades since the end of the Korean War. It’s been four decades since Nixon went to China. It’s been over two decades since the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended.

At this point, North Korea shouldn’t be primarily our problem. 

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic and a RealClearPolitics contributor. Reach him at

Robert Robb

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter