Why Doesn't North Korea Attack Japan or China?

By Mike Dorf

In my latest FindLaw column, I draw some parallels (and also some distinctions) between the Yankees' contract negotiations with Derek Jeter and the violence on the Korean peninsula.  With the Jeter negotiations stalled, here I'll focus on the latter--obviously more momentous--situation.

In the column, I explore a number of explanations for the most recent attack by North Korea against South Korea, including the possibility that it is an effort to blackmail South Korea into once again providing large amounts of food and other aid.  Over the last couple of decades, periodic attacks from North Korea have led to a rush of diplomacy, which in turn led to aid packages for North Korea.  Although North Korea has tested missiles capable of reaching Japan, and shares a border with China, it has mostly restricted its outright attacks to South Korea.  Why?

One clear answer is vulnerability.  Seoul is 35 miles from the North Korean border and thus vulnerable to artillery fire (although perhaps not as vulnerable as people commonly assume).  By contrast, Japan could only be reached by ballistic missiles or from the air or sea, triggering defenses and presumably retaliation.  China is a different story.  The Chinese city of Dandong sits at the border with North Korea and has a greater-metro population in the millions, so North Korea could do considerable damage to China, but political factors apparently prevent that.

What exactly are those political factors?  One might assume that China's relatively good relations with North Korea stem from ideological agreement.  However, this seems like a poor fit now that China is the world's largest state capitalist system, and thus communist in name only.  China is North Korea's largest trading partner, which is a big deal for North Korea, though a drop in the bucket for China.  It is thus conventional to say that China has leverage over North Korea because the latter cannot afford to alienate the former.  To put the point crudely, in its dealings with China, North Korea is happy to accept bribes, while in its dealings with South Korea, North Korea resorts to extortion.

China also may be playing a strategic game, allowing North Korea to play the bad cop against South Korea, Japan, and the U.S., so that it, China, can collect chits from these other powers.  Witness the fact that every time North Korea instigates a crisis, the U.S. looks to China to rein in North Korea.  Presumably, that assistance comes with a price tag.

It is sometimes said that China has an interest in the survival and stability of North Korea because the collapse of the North Korean government and descent into chaos could lead to a flood of North Korean refugees into China.  I have my doubts about this theory.  China could probably absorb a few hundred thousand refugees and, if worried about more, certainly has the military manpower and the ruthlessness to seal its border.

All of the foregoing leads me to conclude that China currently gets very little out of its relationship with North Korea--a point that is seemingly confirmed by some of the cables in the latest WikiLeaks trove (as described here).  That in turn suggests that China could abandon North Korea at some point and that North Korea might then resort to other, more violent means of extracting goodies from China, a highly risky strategy to be sure, but one that might be adopted out of desperation and the general madness that characterizes the Kim regime.