In the aftermath of the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, and the brutal murder of several highly placed North Korean leaders, Kim Jong-un has signaled to his Chinese benefactors that he cares little for their opinion. You see, these people were associated with China. In fact, it was assumed that Kim Jong-nam was a potential replacement for the increasingly unstable Kim Jong-un. These developments come on the heels of a series of North Korean missile tests indicating that the North is intent on developing their long-range capabilities.
It is believed that within the next two years North Korea will have the requisite knowledge to launch missiles at the United States’ Pacific coastline. Under such conditions, the United States and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) are poised to conduct another round of their joint military drills. These drills are an annual exercise that tests the interoperability of American and South Korean forces in wartime conditions. Historically, these drills send the North Koreans into an unbridled rage.
In this morass, finally, the Chinese have stepped forward. They have offered to broker a deal whereby the United States and South Korea will not conduct the annual military exercises in exchange for China getting North Korea to abandon pursuit of its nuclear weapons. While it is clear that Kim Jong-un’s mania has finally caused China’s spine to stiffen, there is little doubt that this proposal is also the result of increasing uncertainty as to how the new Trump Administration will react to North Korea’s repeated provocations.
We should all be glad that China has at last decided to take its promise to rein in North Korea more seriously. Unfortunately for China, however, they ought to have been more solicitous of this promise sooner; at least a decade ago. Now, Chinese calls for a deal ring hollow. Where were they when the George W. Bush Administration allowed for the Six-Party Talks to spearhead the resolution of the North Korean nuclear situation? Where were the Chinese when the Kim Regime successfully tested a rudimentary nuclear weapon? Oh, that’s right: the Chinese were bankrolling the mad regime!
Are the Chinese really getting tougher on North Korea?
First, getting the United States and the South Koreans to stand down from a vital defensive exercise is not “getting tough” with North Korea. Should the Trump Administration take this diplomatic bait, all that will occur is the telegraphing to North Korea by the United States that it is not serious in protecting its interests on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-un would thus be induced to perpetrate even more grandiose gestures against the West. The mere appearance of Chinese cooperation should not be enough to sway us.. There must be real movement.
Second, the Chinese may be setting the stage for a regime change in the North. But, don’t let this prospect go to your head: the Chinese are never going to support a unified, democratic Korean peninsula. More likely they are going to replace the manic Kim Jong-un with a Chinese stooge who will keep “stability” in the North-South dynamic (read, continue oppressing the North Koreans and threatening the South). That’s like replacing Adolf Hitler with Walter Ulbricht. Not much of an improvement, if you ask me (certainly not an improvement from Seoul’s perspective).
On top of not wanting a unified, democratic, pro-American Korean peninsula, the Chinese want to prevent a refugee wave from besieging their border. If a full-scale regime change followed on by unification were to take place, China’s border would become inundated with North Koreans fleeing the chaos. The Chinese view this as potentially destabilizing. Thus, the Chinese are very keen for another pro-China strongman to rule over North Korea.
As the great geopolitical analyst, Robert Kaplan points out in his book, Monsoon, the Korean conflict is the last vestige of the Cold War; it is a frozen conflict, from a forgotten war. The world—and especially the Korean people—needs to move on from this conflict.
Allowing the Chinese to resolve anything in this campaign will only lead to an entirely new set of security dilemmas for the United States. The Chinese long-term goals are to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific entirely. We simply have too many interests in that region of the world to be seen yielding on this. Letting the Chinese take the lead in this area will not be conducive to America’s long-term interests.
To be fair, the Chinese overture is a positive sign that something constructive can be done. However, the Trump Administration must not take this deal at face value. The only path forward is for the United States to increase its presence on the Korean peninsula while encouraging both the South Koreans and the Japanese (the countries most threatened by North Korean brinkmanship) to expand their military capabilities. Indeed, the United States should encourage both Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear arsenals of their own, in much the same way that America allowed for Israel to develop its own arsenal. That would be the ultimate check against North Korea.
Also, the idea that the North will remain separated from the South, is absurd. The Koreans are a singular people. Whatever happens, the great powers of the world must ensure that the country remains unified under Seoul’s rule.
Of course, what I am talking about is not nation-building of the sort that pursued by the George W. Bush Administration in either Iraq or Afghanistan. I am talking about a concert of powers (the United States, China, South Korea, and North Korea, for instance) coordinating an equitable post-Kim Regime settlement. While the United States can—and should—assist its South Korean partners in any unification, the South must do the heavy-lifting on its own.
The United States should make clear that under any unification strategy, the Chinese would have a serious role to play. America must respect and address China’s own concerns about having a unified, democratic Korean peninsula along their border. Any attempt to cut China out of a unification settlement on the Korean Peninsula would doom Sino-American relations.
This recent Chinese overture must be understood as an opening bid, not a fait accompli. The U.S.-ROK military drill should continue lest China does something more meaningful. A comprehensive agreement for ending the North-South conflict that has torn Korea apart for decades must be forged. The Trump Administration should refuse to discontinue any joint military exercise (or do anything that might weaken the South Korean position) unless China gets the North to completely abandon its nuclear program. The North must also open itself up to U.S. weapons inspections. It must demilitarize. Furthermore, if the North does not open itself up to trade, then there will be no change in U.S.-South Korean military relations. Of course, the North will not make these changes—even if China were to change leaders in the North.
Make no mistake, China just blinked. America must take advantage of this. A unified Korean peninsula is the only long-term solution to this problem. China will have to recognize this. Otherwise, there will be a forcible reunification of Korea without Chinese input. This will not be salutary to China’s long-term strategic interests.