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What is China Up to in North Korea?

March 17, 2013

Westerners assume too easily, I think, that the Chinese-North Korean relationship is one of  straightforward alliance – a simple and complete alignment of interests. My own assumption is that the relationship is more complex, and much more difficult.

Westerners similarly assumed that Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union marched in lockstep, because by all public appearances their governments marched in lockstep. But even today a short visit to Warsaw gives a glimpse of pervasive popular Polish hatred toward the Soviets.

Westerners also thought of North Vietnam as China’s mini-me. But Vietnam’s history with China was one of manipulation and artifice – Vietnam explicitly pursued an appearance of cultural and political Sinocization to appease its powerful neighbor, while only behind metaphorical closed doors expressing its resentments toward that neighbor. Over the millennia, China and Vietnam have fought more than one war -Vietnam has rolled up a remarkable record of military successes that are an important source of national pride.

The phenomenon of a smaller nation making accommodation to a more powerful neighbor while maintaining a strongly independent national identity was known during the Cold War as Finlandization, after the Finns’ extremely successful balance between its liberal, capitalist, democratic aspirations and the Stalinist demands of the Soviet Union.

I think many Westerners assume that North Koreans’ development of nuclear weaponry must have Chinese consent, if not active support. I’m not so sure. Although North Korea invariably couches its petulant rhetoric in anti-American, anti-South Korean terms, it seems to me that part of its nuclear motivation must be concern for the Chinese behemoth to its west. Stating its nuclear case in anti-western terms might just be a convenient cover.

My preferred assumption is always that people are rational, and that if we only understand a person’s worldview we will see the rationality of the person’s actions. North Korea is so alien to us, and its inner workings so unknown, that we are tempted away from the assumption of rationality – Kim Jung-un is just crazy, we say, throwing up our hands and giving up on trying to understand him. But think back – many people did the same thing, in essence, with regard to the Soviet Union. Time after time, Soviet government actions seemed to be beyond rational calculation – but looking back now, with the benefit of access to Soviet archives, we find that Soviet actions were pretty rational after all, once we understand their premises.

So let’s assume that North Korea is a rational actor, and ask the question: who are they more afraid of, the United States or China? The United States maintains a military force of less than 30,000 in South Korea; the Chinese People’s Liberation Army numbers more than two million. More than 20 million Chinese reach military age every year. The United States has more planes, missiles, bombs and nuclear weapons, but China’s are much closer.

It has long been well known that China is very much concerned about a Korean unification that follows the German model – a modern, westernized country absorbing its less developed junior partner. China ardently does not want an American military presence on its borders. North Korea presumably shares China’s interest to the extent that North Korea does not want to disappear into a reunited Korea. North Koreans may well favor unification, but no doubt prefer more favorable terms than the East German government got.

A dozen years ago, China began an initiative, called the Northeast Project, that it said was directed to better integrating its northeastern provinces and their ethnic Koreans into the whole of China. Part of the integration was a provocative re-interpretation of Chinese-Korean history that must be very much not to the liking of the Koreans, north and south.

For most of the first millennium A.D., the Korean people were governed by the Three Kingdoms –  Baekje and Silla in the south of the Korean peninsula, and Goguryeo, which at its fifth century peak extended from south of modern-day Seoul far into Manchu China, reaching as far as Inner Mongolia. The Northeast Project re-casts the Goguryeo kingdom as part of Chinese history instead of Korean.

It is hard not to look at the Northeast Project as a Chinese effort to resist Korean unification, specifically by asserting a historical Chinese interest in North Korea. If a unified Korea won’t be pro-Chinese, then China prefers an un-unified Korea, with its northern half under Chinese sway. The Chinese haven’t quite declared North Korea a renegade province, like Taiwan, but something of the same point is made.

Now if we return to our assumption of rationality, the Chinese Northeast Project must miff the North Koreans, even if unlike their southern neighbors, they have not been publicaly vocal about it. It’s still hard to see a rational long-term North Korean strategy here, since it can’t be that the North imagines that it can either conquer the South or intimidate the South into submission. But whatever the long-term strategy is, we have to assume that North Korea is no more interested in subjugation by China than by South Korea.

*          *          *

Since we’re discussing that part of the world, I have another point to make. After North Korea renounced the 1953 armistice this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a $1 billion program to beef up American anti-missile defenses in Alaska and California. The program is at least partly a redeployment of American resources from Europe, since the program is billed as a de facto cancellation of the plan to place anti-missile defenses there – a plan the Russians had adamantly opposed.

But here’s what interested me: the Americans already had 30 anti-missile facilities in Alaska and California, presumably as defense against Russian and Chinese nukes. Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons and an excellent intercontinental ballistic capability; China has a couple hundred nukes and a pretty good intercontinental capability. North Korea has maybe a half-dozen nuclear bombs, and no intercontinental capability at all, yet we’re increasing our anti-missile defense facilities by almost half.

Now of course our missile defenses are not intended exclusively for protection of American territory; they are theoretically capable of protecting any territory within their range, including South Korea and Japan. But at best their effectiveness is 50 percent, and the farther they have to reach the less effective our missile defenses are. Or conversely, the shorter the distance a nuke has to travel the better its odds of evading anti-missile defenses.

So my conclusion is that our $1 billion redeployment has two primary purposes, neither one of which is shooting down North Korea missiles. One purpose is to give the appearance of a tough reaction to North Korean sabre-rattling, both for domestic and for international eyes.  The other is to give the U.S. a face-saving way out of the conflict with Russia over plans for Europe-based anti-missile facilities.

One Comment
  1. Scott Mason permalink

    An amazing, thought-provoking post. LOVED it.



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