Global Affairs

US calls China's bluff on North Korea

The Trump administration is making the right military moves to halt Pyongyang's nuclear ambition


LONDON • The Chinese government apparently worries that, as it puts it, "storm clouds are gathering" over the Korean peninsula. If the United States and the two Koreas "let war break out, they must shoulder that historic culpability and pay the corresponding price", said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But this Beijing warning, which implies that using force in order to prevent North Korea from becoming a fully-fledged nuclear state remains unthinkable and suggests that the Chinese are merely innocent bystanders in this crisis, remains wrong at every level.

For the reality is that, far from being unthinkable, there are a variety of practical ways military force can be deployed to coerce North Korea; far from being irresponsible or "culpable", the current US administration is acting with foresight by testing these options.

Either way, China is not just a mere observer or umpire at this lethal ping-pong match between the US and North Korea. Beijing bears a large measure of responsibility for the present dangerous phase in this showdown and will not be able to escape its consequences.


There are some tiresome, time-worn cliched arguments which constantly come up in any discussion about North Korea, and all need to be refuted.


The first is the claim - much favoured by analysts in China - that the biggest problem is how to tame a trigger-happy US, which neither understands nor cares about North Korea's historic fears.

Nonsense. Four consecutive US presidents have tried to engage with North Korea over the past three decades. If criticism can be levied at Washington, it is that successive American administrations neglected the threat by either concentrating on nuclear challenges from the Middle East, or by concocting grand concepts which merely hid lack of any action. Mr Barack Obama's policy of "strategic patience" on North Korea was neither about patience, nor about strategy.

The real problem is not American obduracy but a North Korean regime which understood - correctly, from its own perspective - that no security guarantee it can ever get from anyone will be as potent as that offered by its possession of nuclear weapons.

As Pyongyang sees it, being embraced by the world and being showered with consumer goods are just as dangerous and as potentially destabilising to the Kim dynasty as isolation. So this is not a regime which has acquired nuclear weapons because it craves security, but one which wants to go nuclear because it believes that its survival depends on maintaining a perpetual state of insecurity.

Another myth which overshadows coherent discussion about dealing with North Korea is the argument that it is never too late to "give diplomacy a chance". In theory, that is of course correct. But as the case of North Korea indicates, the real question is when a decision must be made that diplomacy cannot work. For it is simply not true to say that wasting decades in fruitless diplomatic efforts is cost-free, since the time merely allowed Pyongyang to perfect its nuclear weapons.

And although there will always be doubts about North Korea's real military capabilities - this is a regime which frequently parades fake missiles and had one senior official telling me a few years ago in Pyongyang with a straight face that the North Korean military stands ready to "pulverise" New York - certain proven recent developments in Pyongyang's capabilities are particularly menacing.

These include a diversification of missile production facilities and delivery systems, including ballistic missiles launched from submarines, as well as subtle shifts in military exercises. The North Korean military is now practising the dispersal of missiles around the country, something leading non-proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis aptly remarked recently can no longer be classified as missile exercises, but resembles general preparations for war, and a nuclear one at that.

Add to this clear indications that Pyongyang is progressing in its quest to acquire an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery platform capable of reaching US territory and it is obvious that standing still is hardly a neutral, "peaceful" proposition.


Which brings us to the third prevailing myth: the idea that there is no military option, that any US attack designed to destroy Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal risks a global nuclear exchange, as well as the destruction of the entire Korean peninsula.

It is still fashionable to deride the Donald Trump administration as lacking strategic knowledge or vision. But on North Korea, the administration has been neither silly nor devoid of purpose. It has wisely rejected the supposed dichotomy between a total war and no military options whatsoever as false. It has also told China in no uncertain terms that, if the Chinese claim that they cannot influence events in North Korea, they should not object if others start exercising influence.

But would it? However detached from reality North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be, he must know that, if he fires nuclear missiles at either the US forces or at South Korea or Japan, both he and his entire regime, as well as the mummified corpses of his father and grandfather displayed in their Pyongyang mausoleum, will be reduced to smouldering ashes. And while the Kim clan has never flinched from sending millions to their deaths, it has never indicated a desire to commit suicide.

Yet even if we assume that the prospects of nuclear retaliation from North Korea remain unacceptably high, there are plenty of other military measures the US can take to squeeze Pyongyang now. These include moving more leading-edge missile defence systems to South Korea and Japan, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, as well as more naval assets and special forces.

The purpose of such a military build-up is twofold. The first objective is to reassure allies and steel their resolve. Chances are high that the next South Korean president, scheduled to be elected next month, will be tempted to offer an olive branch to Pyongyang, court Chinese friendship and downgrade relations with Japan, all at the same time. All incoming South Korean presidents try at least two of these options, and invariably with no results.

But animosity towards Japan is probably the most enduring and most counter-productive South Korean instinct, for it is nothing more than displacement therapy, an attempt to vent Seoul's frustration against an old enemy which will no longer harm Korea, rather than tackle the real enemy across its northern border.

Only the US can stifle these counter-productive South Korean policy instincts. And the only way that can be done is by enhancing US military commitments to both nations.

The second and far more important objective of the US military build-up is China. Beijing keeps on repeating that it has limited influence on Pyongyang and that it cannot afford to see North Korea collapse because this could unleash refugee waves across the Chinese borders. Yet both arguments are unpersuasive.

For while China clearly does not have total control over Pyongyang, it has the ability to pull the plug on the North Korean regime, which relies on China for 90 per cent of its trade. The reason Beijing never contemplated doing so is not because of ideological affinity or fear of refugees (in the event of Korean unification, refugees are more likely to stream across to South Korea rather than China) but partly because the Chinese assume that a nuclear North Korea is more trouble to the US than to China, and mainly because the Chinese prefer a perpetually divided Korean peninsula.

So while China constantly threatens to tighten sanctions on North Korea, it does nothing of the kind. Figures released over the past few days by China's own official statistical agency indicate that exports of goods to North Korea soared by 54 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Beijing is, of course, entitled to continue with its "now you see it, now you don't" policy. But it should not be allowed to assume that it remains exempt from paying a price for sustaining the North Korean regime.

The US military build-up is America's way of making this trade-off clear: The longer North Korea survives, the bigger the strategic price China has to pay. Beijing fears US missile defence developments? It will get more of them near China's borders as long as the threat from North Korea endures. China detests the presence of the US Navy near its shores? It will now have the pleasure of seeing the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group sailing by, and perhaps even pottering about in the Yellow Sea, which the Chinese have long treated as their own lake.

It is still fashionable to deride the Donald Trump administration as lacking strategic knowledge or vision. But on North Korea, the administration has been neither silly nor devoid of purpose. It has wisely rejected the supposed dichotomy between a total war and no military options whatsoever as false. It has also told China in no uncertain terms that if the Chinese claim that they cannot influence events in North Korea, they should not object if others start exercising influence.

Reckless? No, or at least not yet. For there is no evidence that previous "peaceful" policies have worked, although there is plenty of evidence that the time for diplomacy is quickly running out.

Indeed, an even more persuasive case can be made that the only alternative to current US policies, which is to accept a nuclear North Korea as a permanent reality, remains the truly reckless option.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline 'US calls China's bluff on North Korea '. Subscribe