Understanding the US-China Impasse on North Korea
Photo Credit: Reuters
By John F. Copper

Understanding the US-China Impasse on North Korea

Jan. 05, 2018  |     |  0 comments

It appears that the US and China are at odds about resolving the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile threat problem. This is especially so since President Donald Trump accused China of breaking UN sanctions by shipping oil to North Korea. China denies the charge. Some US officials and most of the Western media say China does not really want to help resolve the North Korean menace. One might ask: What is going on? Does China want to cooperate with the US to deal with North Korea, or not?

One way to answer this question would be to look at the problem from China’s point of view. Most Western pundits do not do this. The Western liberal media is hostile towards China and eschews considering China’s national interests. What are China’s views and what are its interests?

First, China does not favor nuclear proliferation. To China’s leaders, more nuclear powers will mean a less stable international system. Global stability is a boon to China, which uses trade to enhance its economic growth and its global influence that is based on its financial clout. China is especially concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as it is of greater threat to China than it is to the US, since North Korea is so much closer. Proximity means China is much more in danger. This reality was recently underscored by news that one of North Korea’s nuclear test sites is on the North Korean-Chinese border and that the area is unstable, which means that an accident would affect China’s Jilin Province, possibly resulting in widespread injuries and loss of lives to citizens in China. Finally, North Korea possessing a nuclear arsenal may prompt Japan and even South Korea to go nuclear. China does not want that, as it would change the strategic power equation dramatically in Northeast Asia against China’s favor.

Second, China sees North Korea, as do nations around the world, as being governed by an outlaw regime. North Korea is indeed a pariah nation. Being seen as China’s friend and ally hurts China’s global image, which Chinese leaders are promoting with great energy. They hardly want to be associated with a nation whose top leader killed his uncle (in brutal fashion) and his half-brother (while he was in another country).

Third, North Korea does not accept China’s counsel to restructure its economy, to stop its policies of extorting money by engaging in terrorist activities, to cease its involvement in the illicit drug trade, and to quit counterfeiting other countries’ (including the US) currencies. Bringing this closer to home, North Korea has engaged in kidnapping Chinese citizens for ransom while intimidating Chinese tourists.

Plainly, China and the US are on the same page regarding the North Korean regime and agree that something needs to be done. Does China have the capacity to influence North Korea? Obviously it does, since it is propping up the regime with economic aid and investments, plus trade and more. For some time, China has been its main source of economic aid and provides North Korea with most of its oil and food. There is a “but” here though: North Korea is notoriously recalcitrant, and it has proven time and again it can and will resist China’s influence. Often it plays China off against Russia and South Korea.

This being the situation, we must ask: What does China want? Simply put, Chinese leaders want to see an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its missile tests. It wants North Korea to cease its bad and provocative behavior.

More importantly: What does China not want? China does not want the North Korean government to collapse. If North Korea collapses, it would mean a million or so refugees fleeing into China. This would cause serious problems for China. Would it use its military to stop this? Machine guns obviously could. But the anti-China Western media would be expected to magnify the event and hurt China’s global image.

Chinese leaders have good reason not to trust the US to keep its present policies vis-à-vis North Korea. After all, Washington had pursued weak polices and made concessions that bordered on appeasement for more than two and a half decades.

China does not want Korean reunification, which the serious actions it and the US are taking may precipitate. A unified Korea would mean that US troops in South Korea would move to the Yalu River that is the border with China. The last time this happened the result was very bad — the 1950s Korean War that resulted in huge causalities for the US and China plus huge monetary costs. To the point, sanctions, which if applied too hard and too fast, are likely to produce the effects China fears.

Beijing would prefer that North Korean President Kim Jong-un gradually realize his untenable position and change to policies that will be to his country’s advantage and which may also be his only option — one that his personal survival depends on. (Kim has thirty or so places where he sleeps because of his worries about an assassination attempt or a US surgical strike. He must live in constant fear for his life.)

Does China have a “Plan B?” China would not mind seeing an army coup or something similar to remove Kim from power. China has considerable influence with the North Korean military and its relationship with a post-Kim military regime could well be a cordial and workable one. Chinese influence, in fact, might bring about the changes China (and the US) want that would essentially resolve the North Korean problem satisfactorily to both.

Regarding the Trump administration’s recent complaint, China may see the oil embargo as being too extreme and may perceive that it will hit the military hard. Also, it may bring the North Korean army and President Kim closer together.

There are other matters. Chinese leaders have good reason not to trust the US to keep its present policies vis-à-vis North Korea. After all, Washington had pursued weak polices and made concessions that bordered on appeasement for more than two and a half decades. Beijing certainly looks at history to guide its decisions, even if it trusts President Trump.

China also has cause to wonder (perhaps even doubt) whether President Trump will remain in office. The Western media is finding fault with him almost daily and wants him out. They talk of impeachment with great regularity. Trump’s popularity with the American people is low. The Mueller team is conducting an investigation into whether the Trump administration cheated with Russia to get him elected.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the US does not seek regime change in North Korea and does not intend to pursue Korean reunification. But should China believe this? There have been serious rumors in Washington to the effect that Tillerson is unhappy with his position and his relationship with President Trump and that he will quit his job soon. The names of possible replacements have been cited in the media.

On top of that, pundits and even former and current officials in the US frequently offer the opinion that UN sanctions do not work. Indeed, the record proves that. In addition, the Trump administration does not have confidence in the UN and its relation with the world body is not good.

The Trump administration’s announced contingency plan, if sanctions do not work, is to use military force against North Korea; the US cannot allow President Kim to develop weapons that hold American cities (including New York and Washington DC, according to recent estimates) hostage and destroy them at his whim.

China’s leaders hardly take that at face value. They know about Stuxnet, which the US used to disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons project. They realize America has the ability to use the Aegis systems on its ships parked in the area to shoot down North Korea’s missiles as they take off. They have data on US missile defense showing it can stop missiles (if there are not too many of them, and North Korea does not have many) in their final flight stage.

What China would like is for the US to practice a little patience, as China does. Doing so, the two would likely succeed in their mission of a denuclearized and more peaceful North Korea.

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