China´s role in North Korea

04.10.17 Publication:

Every time North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or missile,
the question hangs in the mind: why are they doing this? Is it just to deter any
potential attacker? Then the old Cold War principles of containment and
deterrence by mutually assured destruction would suffice. But what if they have
another motive? It is time to think seriously about other possibilities.

            The North
Korean regime, led now by three successive generations of the Kim dynasty, has
been so consistent over more than three decades in its quest to become a
nuclear-weapons power that there is no sense in assuming, as the Clinton
Administration did in the 1990s, that the nukes are mere bargaining chips. The
new assumption, especially since Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father in 2011 at an
age of about 27, has been that the nukes are an internal power-play, designed
to strengthen an initially weak leader.

            Yet the
tests have gone on for too long, and become too frequent, for this explanation
to be convincing. So far as outsiders peeking in at the world’s most secretive regime
can tell, Kim Jong-Un looks strong, with no evidence of any internal threat. So
there has to be another explanation.

            There are
really only three possibilities. One is that for the youngest Kim so far, the
missiles and nukes are akin to boys’ toys: he likes playing with them, and even
scaring people as he does so. He has the power to rattle his country’s sabres,
so he does so, just for the sake of it. His father indulged himself by
kidnapping actresses and drinking the best cognac, so perhaps such games are
what absolute dictators can play, disregarding the interests of their

            The second
possibility, however, is that Kim really wants to threaten the United States,
and might mean it when he promises to fire missiles into the sea near the US
military bases on the Pacific island of Guam, even though last month he
postponed that show of bravado soon after announcing it. His purpose could be
to try to divide the long-time regional allies of South Korea, Japan and the
United States, especially at a time when every ally doubts the stability and
competence of President Donald Trump.

            This second
possibility requires a suicidal mindset, however. As Kim must know, any first
use of an actual nuclear weapon against the United States or any of its
dependencies would not just invite, but necessitate, immediate nuclear
retaliation, on a scale from which there would be no hiding place for the North
Korean leadership. Such retaliation would be virtually certain under any
president, but even more so – if that is possible – under Trump.

would also be inevitable in the case of a conventional missile attack on
American assets, and again such retaliation would be more likely, and probably
more massive, under Trump.

            So here is
the third possibility. The Korean War finished 64 years ago, in 1953, with a
ceasefire but no treaty or other resolution. There is just one way in which a
North Korean leader could imagine he might be able to resume that conflict and
finally win it, and that would be through the use of nuclear weapons to
intimidate the South Koreans into surrender.

            This too
would be pretty suicidal, but not entirely so. It is imaginable that a limited
nuclear attack, perhaps directed away from Seoul and other centres of population,
could be followed by a promised ceasefire and call for talks, in the hope that
South Korea would sue for peace and the Americans might shrink back.

            In fact,
the Americans probably wouldn’t shrink back, because they couldn’t afford to,
given their military bases in South Korea and indeed for the sake of their
regional and global status. No one would ever trust them again if they were to
take an “America First” attitude. But that is the just-conceivable bet that
North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un could be making.

            So what is
to be done? Continued containment and deterrence are clearly the best options.
But there is another, which might become likelier if the actual use of nukes by
Kim starts to be taken seriously in Beijing: a Chinese military invasion, or
regime change provoked by the threat of one. Like any military invasion it
would be risky, but it could succeed, by dividing the North Korean leadership.

actually would be a good and logical outcome, especially for China. It would
bring North Korea back under China’s security umbrella, as it was under Mao
Zedong in the 1950s, matching the current positions of Japan and South Korea
under America’s umbrella, and would give China a powerful influence over future
developments on the Korean peninsula. Asians, including even the Japanese,
would be grateful to have been saved from the threat of nuclear war.

China’s strategic position would,
to borrow an old Maoist phrase, take a great leap forward. This possibility,
too, needs now to be taken seriously.