Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that the Chinese and North Koreans are “like lips and teeth” may actually have been a little off the mark. That’s because the North Koreans are suspicious of the Chinese and the Chinese fret that they have no influence over the ungrateful North Koreans. Rather, the two who may really be like lips and teeth may, in fact, be the United States and the DPRK – two supposed mortal enemies.
Since the creation of the DPRK, the Kims relied on the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) threat to consolidate and hold onto power. They have used the long history of confrontation and an unfinished war against a Goliath superpower to create a kind of totalitarian “guerrilla state” in which the soldierly obedient population is made dependent on a messiah like “general.” A permanent U.S. imperial threat, real or imagined, is a key ingredient to the legitimacy and perpetuation of the North Korean system.
The U.S. role in propping up the North Korean regime has been little noted, yet the yearly U.S.-ROK war games directed at North Korea, sprawling U.S. military bases in South Korea, embargoes in place since the birth of North Korea, multiple layers of sanctions, and an Axis of Evil label all helped play into a narrative in which the Pyongyang regime spins to control its people.
If one removes the rhetoric and just looks at behaviors and outcomes, one could argue, possibly at least since the end of the Cold War, that the unspoken policy of the U.S. was the perpetuation of the DPRK regime. In a way, we Americans prop up the DPRK regime not with generous aid and peace, but by giving it real fuel to fire its raison d’etre, which according to the narrative of the regime is the fear of an impending invasion or conflict with imperial America and its puppet the ROK.
In turn, the U.S. may depend on DPRK belligerence for its own interest. The U.S.-ROK alliance is a tremendous asset to the U.S: The bases in South Korea represent a strategic foothold on mainland Asia largely paid for by the South Koreans and, under bilateral defense treaties, the U.S. has potential control over one of the largest and advanced militaries in the world. Through the usually belligerent rhetoric, the occasional provocation , and now nuclear arms brinkmanship, the DPRK helps legitimate the U.S.-ROK alliance and secure a firm U.S. presence on the peninsula. Again, rhetoric aside and looking just at behaviors and outcomes, the U.S. may count on no better ally than the North Koreans.
Thus theoretically, we have a stable outcome. Here the best result for both the DPRK regime and U.S. is for both sides to perpetuate the hostility. By doing this, North Korea ensures the survival of the U.S.-ROK alliance and the U.S. ensures the survival of the Kim family dynasty. The situation is illustrated in the below chart borrowed from game theory. Of note, the strategic posturing is consistent with the respective internal power structures and the interests of those in power in both the DPRK and the U.S: The maintenance of personal privileges and power on one hand, and regional security, containment, and a large military budget on the other.
So it seems that the long term strategy of both the U.S. and DPRK may have always been the continued division of the peninsula. Like “Lips and Teeth”, they have worked hand in hand to thwart normalization and peace on the peninsula, and by doing so, they have pushed reunification further into the future.
But note the game will be over for either party, should the other change tact and offer peace and normalization. If either side can aggressively offer peace, the legitimacy of the other’s hostile position collapses. Thus if one really wants peace and stability on the peninsula, they could almost ignore the belligerence of the other and pursue peace on their own terms.
However, as you can see from the chart, neither side may be interested in peace. This is unfortunate for in the long run, the situation may not actually be sustainable. With the end of the Cold War, the politics of division has shifted to the nuclear issue. At each turn, the DPRK raises its nuclear and missile capabilities a notch, at great expense and sacrifice to itself and to its population. Then the U.S. responds by deepening the international sanctions that strangulate the DPRK economy.
The danger is that DPRK could eventually collapse through exhaustion and the resulting process may be messy, entail significant costs to the Koreans, and potentially involve both the Chinese and Americans in armed conflict. As well, there could be miscalculation in brinkmanship, resulting in a possibly nuclear catastrophe.
Before the situation gets out of hand, it is high time we consider peace, a kind of peace that offers both sides a way out.
Mao Zedong's famous dictum that the Chinese and North Koreans are "like lips and teeth" may actually have been a little off the mark. That's because the North Koreans are suspicious of the Chinese and the Chinese fret that they have no influence over the ungrateful North Koreans. Rather, the two who may really be like lips and teeth may, in fact, be the United States and the DPRK – two
Charles K. Park has a Bachelors degree in Political Economy of Industrial Societies (PEIS) from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Pacific and International Affairs (MPIA) degree from UC San Diego. He has also done some graduate work in Business Organization and Strategy at the University of Connecticut. On his spare time he maintains the Facebook page: North Korea Economic Development.