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The Next Korean War

April 7, 2013

It is conventional wisdom that the next Korean war will be the last Korean war. If North Korea attacks South Korea, Japan, or the United States, those countries will annihilate the Pyongyang government and forcibly unite the Korean peninsula under Seoul. Surely Kim Jong-un and his generals know this, which makes the current round of North Korean bluff and bluster very curious.

Although North Korea has a long history of rhetorical excess, the hot air blowing out of Pyongyang of late is reaching temperatures not recorded in decades. China is reported to be “discomforted,” as well anyone might be with such a bizarre, nuclear-capable next-door neighbor.

This time, Pyongyang has gone above and beyond the customary North Korean noise. It has closed entry to South Korean managers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a long-standing symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, and an important source of income for the north. Pyongyang has moved missiles of “considerable range” to its coast, threatening nuclear attack. And last week North Korea suggested that foreign embassies consider evacuating, implying that the safety of their personnel could not be guaranteed in the event of armed conflict.

I don’t think that anyone outside of North Korea knows exactly what the North Koreans are up to – or at least anyone who does know isn’t talking about it publicly. The prominent theories are that the youngster Kim Jong-un may be trying to prove himself to the North Korean military brass, or that Pyongyang is building up to a demand for Western concessions in exchange for resuming nuclear negotiations.

Conventional wisdom holds that China has the ability to control North Korean conduct, but holders of that conventional wisdom have no explanation why China hasn’t exercised its alleged control. I think China has a good deal less influence over Kim than is assumed, for two reasons. First, it is clear that North Korea does not easily back down to threats. Many of the same people who assume that China could change Kim’s attitude with a phone call simultaneously observe the utter futility of American-led sanctions and other international measures. North Korea’s willingness to let its people starve rather than play just nice enough to get Western food aid ought to be proof enough that Pyongyang cares little for the internal difficulties that result from its actions.

Second, China is presumably acutely aware that North Korea has long-term options: we have to assume that the Russians stand ready, willing and able to re-take the role of North Korea’s patron should China’s terms no longer be acceptable to Pyongyang. Chinese economic sanctions could result in only short-term North Korean hardship and long-term movement of Pyongyang from China’s to Russia’s orbit.

China has voiced “grave concern” about the North Korean situation. In any immediate sense, that situation is entirely of North Korea’s making, so the Chinese statements must be read as voicing “grave concern” about North Korea’s actions. This weekend, China requested North Korean protection of foreign diplomats living in Pyongyang, usefully reminding North Korea that the safety of diplomats is protected by treaties to which North Korea is a signatory.

China’s statements tell me that the Chinese government knows no better than ours what Kim is up to. The statements also confirm that China does not have the leverage over North Korea that Americans assume it has – if China is “gravely concerned” about Kim, and has the ready ability to control Kim’s actions, there would be no need for public requests for North Korean assurances and reminders of North Korea’s international treaty obligations.

Despite friendship treaties and public affirmations of socialist fraternity, the Chinese-North Korean relationship has had some bumps, including armed conflict. As recently as 1969, China and North Korea fought border skirmishes. Although China made significant border concessions in 1970 as part of an effort to win North Korea away from the Soviets, the current border was not fully fixed until 2000. Still, in 2003, China transferred responsibility for border security from its police to its army. To put this in context, imagine how Canadians would feel about United States Marines patrolling our border.

China adamantly does not want a united, westernized Korea. China surely learned the lesson of German reunification, when Mikhail Gorbachev was forced to withdraw Soviet troops from East Germany without winning NATO departure from West Germany. NATO and the European Union have moved east, and China certainly does not want South Korea to move north.

I have opined that North Korea, if it is rational, ought to be at least as much concerned about China, the military and economic powerhouse directly to its west, as it is about the United States, literally half a world away. Ironically, though, North Korea’s current temper tantrum seems to me to risk provoking the Chinese more than provoking the United States. We have no diplomats in Pyongyang, and few if any American nationals in North Korea. We have no economic interests in North Korea. Our chief interests are keeping North Korea out of South Korea and preventing nuclear proliferation or attack, and we can achieve those interests reasonably well without actually invading the north.

China, on the other hand, has considerable interests in North Korea – so much so that China has begun propagating the notion that North Korea is historically linked more to China than to South Korea. China wants to keep North Korea separate from the south, friendly to itself, and out of the Russian sphere of influence.

What action furthers all of those interests? Standing benignly by has served China’s interests well, whereas telling Kim how to behave risks driving him into Russian arms. At some point, however, standing by takes on its own risks. China surely recognizes the conventional wisdom that another inter-Korean war is likely to end with a Korean unification that looks like the German version.

If Kim continues on his current trajectory, the likelihood of war will eventually become sufficient that China will have to act. Economic sanctions are not effective in the short term, even though China accounts for a huge proportion of North Korean international trade. And with Russia on the sidelines, it is not clear that Chinese economic sanctions would even be effective in the long term.

On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely that the Russians, the Americans, or anybody else in the world would intervene militarily to stop the Chinese from forcibly installing a more predictable government and a more stable ally. Who intervened when the Soviet tanks put down the Prague Spring in 1968? On the contrary, the United States might well prefer a pacified North Korea closely aligned with China to an unpredictable nuclear North Korea run by the Kim family. (To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes entirely out of context, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”)

Proper form would require the governments of the world to call on China to leave North Korea immediately, to respect international treaties and boundaries, and so on and so forth. But that would pass, and China has abundantly proved its willingness to weather international storms in pursuit of its geopolitical interests.

I don’t mean to argue that a Chinese invasion is imminent, or even likely. But I do want to suggest the possibility that Kim Jong-un may be playing for Chinese concessions of some kind, and not just American ones.

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