The International Relations of Proxy War: Great Power Competition Facilitates Policy Shifts in North Korea-US Relations


For a variety of reasons, the DPRK regime has concentrated on nuclear weapons as the primary mode to achieve its goals.  As other legitimizing mechanisms erode, the state’s threat of nuclear reprisals in the event of a foreign attempt to force regime change has become the single greatest pillar keeping Kim Jong-un in power.  Viewed as a pariah state throughout much of the international community, Pyongyang has fulfilled its own prophecy. Isolated from much of the rest of the world, North Korea’s prospects for economic recovery and a renaissance are bleak at best.  With few friends left, the Kim family rules a state that is on virtual life support, prolonged largely by the threat of nuclear retaliation.

Under the protection of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the DPRK government has had the freedom of action to oppress its people and coerce neighboring states with the use of blackmail and extortion tactics.  Simply possessing WMD capability proven to have the range to strike South Korea has emboldened Pyongyang into taking aggressive actions against Seoul.  As it further enhances delivery systems, North Korea can elevate the deterrence value of its nuclear program.  The danger in the modernization of the North Korea’s delivery systems is that it has empowered the regime to be able to take more provocative action beyond just shelling South Korean islands, torpedoing South Korean submarines, and conducting missile tests over Japanese territory. The unconventional challenge Pyongyang symbolizes has afforded it the operational space needed to adopt provocative domestic and foreign policies beyond any international standard of acceptability.  It is widely believed that the North Koreans will consider nuclear retaliation against the United States directly if it is attacked.  In virtually every scenario, the risks of a detonation are simply too great to take military action (Florick 2016).

It is worth noting that once it becomes clear that a state possesses nuclear weapons, the window of opportunity to deter acquisition is shut, leaving little hope for relinquishment. To be clear, once completed, the domestic costs associated with ending a nuclear weapon program are even higher than they were during the research and development phase. The opportunity cost of acquiring the capability makes it almost impossible to justify forfeiture. With that being said, the desirability of any military option decreases exponentially once it has been successfully tested.  Unfortunately, the resolve of the global order to compel a state to relinquish its weapons is, to put it mildly, fickle. With the understanding that deterrence has failed the international community will often, gradually, reengage with the state in question. This pattern has been seen in cases such as China, India, and Pakistan (Jiang 2019).

Geopolitically, the current international relations paradigm involves a cold-war style politics. An increased superpower rivalry involving China and Russia vs. the United States has emerged and will dominate the global political landscape. Today, with the cooperation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the other BRICs, China and Russia work together to create and strengthen new organizations to rival traditional American-led international organizations. Chinese and Russian national security documents call their relationship a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Throughout the Cold War years, Kim Il-sung used the PRC and USSR against one another. He successfully created a bidding war between the two great poles of communism that allowed North Korea to receive preferential trade agreements and technological assistance. Without a friendly great power by its side after the fall of the Soviet Union and the diplomatic rapprochement between PRC and ROK in 1992, Kim Jong-Il realized that North Korea was structurally fragile. He went to great lengths to replicate the patronage competition that had supported the regime throughout the Cold War (Li 2017). When the DPRK was fraught with famine in the 1990s, Kim Jong-Il had to rely on overseas development assistance and charitable donations from states such as Japan, the PRC, and the ROK.  It is no secret that years of international sanctions, a short-lived promising diplomacy with Trump, and damage inflicted by COVID has made life in Pyongyang extremely difficult. In an era marked by competition between major global powers, North Korea finds itself in a critical position.  With tears in his eyes while speaking at the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ party in October 2022, Kim Jong-un delivered a rare apology to the country over his failings.  This may indicate a potential shift in Pyongyang’s US policy. The confluence of domestic and international pressures provides Kim Jong-un with compelling reasons to seek a dramatic shift in DPRK-US relations.

If Kim intends to improve relations with the U.S., North Korea could diversify its international relationships, potentially lessening its dependence on its traditional allies and gaining more room to maneuver in its foreign policy. From the North Korean perspective, a dramatic change in DPRK-US relations could offer North Korea the security assurances it seeks. With its nuclear program as a bargaining chip, North Korea might live without fear that the U.S. could pursue regime change, a central concern for the North Korean leadership. Improved relations with the U.S. could boost North Korea’s standing in the international community with the sense of legitimacy and respect that it has long sought.

North Korea’s unpredictable behavior and willingness to escalate tensions have been used as a tool to manipulate relations between the U.S., China, and Russia (ECFR 2019). The DPRK knows well that its collapse would likely lead to a reunified Korea under U.S. influence, which is a scenario that neither China nor Russia desires. As such, despite international sanctions and political isolation, North Korea can count on a certain level of support from both countries to ensure its survival. North Korea, though smaller in size and power, has deftly manipulated the complexities of international relations to its advantage, demonstrating that in the realm of diplomacy and power politics, being a “shrimp among whales” can still yield a significant geopolitical impact.

On the first day of his most recent visit to Russia, Kim Jong-un pledged his full support for Russia in what he called a “fight against imperialism.” Like the US and NATO countries supporting Ukraine, there is reason to believe that Kim is likely to supply Russia with much-needed ammunition to fight the war in Ukraine (Time 2023). North Korean and Russian militaries are now being subsidized by one another’s defense industries as the result of this visit. Pyongyang’s alignment with Moscow is part of broader efforts to enhance its regional posture and gain recognition as a significant player on the global stage. Engaging with other countries and regional powers could be part of this strategic consideration.

The international community has exhausted all normal options for curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. All efforts, including Trump’s threat of “fire and fury,” his presidential flattering diplomacy and Biden’s current strategic patience and pragmatic approach, have failed.  This is indeed a transformative time with the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine and US-China diplomatic relations at the lowest point since 1979.  It is time that Washington considers a bold and daring engagement strategy with North Korea. By participating in direct talks with Pyongyang, the Biden Administration can circumvent some of the cancerous obstacles that come with multilateralism. The U.S. could help diversify North Korea’s foreign relations, thus reducing the country’s overdependence on China and Russia.  This move would signal to both Beijing and Moscow that Washington can engage directly and constructively with DPRK, thereby reinforcing America’s commitment to the region. North Korea is situated in a strategically important location, bordering China and Russia and close to Japan, making it a potential fulcrum in the regional power balance. A nuclear-armed North Korea, albeit with a carefully regulated program under stringent monitoring, could act as a counterbalance against the dominance of China and Russia in the region, presenting a strategic advantage to the US.

In an era characterized by great power competition, a compelling case can be made for the United States to fundamentally reassess its policy toward North Korea.  Realistically, it is clear that a total denuclearization in the Korea Peninsula will not be possible. Through negotiations, the US could acknowledge North Korea’s ability to maintain a carefully limited nuclear program while drawing the DPRK into the international community.  Over the long term, the transformation of the Hermit Kingdom may very well present the best opportunity to stabilize the North Korea’s nuclear endeavor.  The existence of a nuclear-armed DPRK, while alarming and undesirable, may paradoxically serve US strategic interests in engaging and potentially containing Russia and China.  Integration of North Korea into international institutions would also impose certain obligations on the state, encouraging adherence to international norms and standards. This, in turn, could reduce the risk of DPRK selling nuclear technologies to non-state actors or other countries, a concern that has long troubled the international community.  Admittedly, such a scenario would necessitate a radical shift in the U.S.’s North Korea policy. Recognizing the DPRK’s nuclear status and facilitating its engagement with the international community could provide a platform for the U.S. to exert influence and encourage the DPRK to behave more responsibly on the global stage. 

The risks of such a policy shift are considerable. Foremost among these is the challenge of ensuring that North Korea’s nuclear program remains “carefully limited.” However, in the context of the great power competition, accepting North Korea’s nuclear program under stringent international regulations and drawing it into the international community, may be a reasonable price to pay for counterbalancing the influence of China and Russia over the long term.

Dr. Maorong Jiang
Dr. Maorong Jiang
Dr. Maorong Jiang is Director of the Asian World Center and Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska (USA). He can be contacted at maorongjiang[at]


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