When I spoke with Korea analyst Gordon Flake this week following the North Korean shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, he made the reasonable point that China’s failure to come down harder on Pyongyang following the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan earlier this year may actually have encouraged this latest act of aggression.
The reason for China tip-toeing around Kim Jong-il is usually given as either it not wanting to precipitate a collapse of the North Korean regime (and therefore risk a flood of refugees), or else a supposed commitment to not interfering in the internal affairs of other nations (a policy it adheres to strictly, except when it doesn’t).
So, self interest will be the prime motivator for any Chinese effort to pressure North Korea. And this is fine—any nation’s leaders can only be expected to put their own country’s interests first. But presumably China doesn’t see it as in its own interests, or in the least desirable, to have the United States station tactical nuclear weapons in a neighbour’s territory.
Yet this is exactly the idea that was floated by South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-young earlier this week. Speaking Monday, Kim said the issue could be raised during a joint military committee meeting with the United States scheduled for next month.
The South Korean government quickly backpedalled from this suggestion, with an official from the presidential office on Tuesday stating that the two countries hadn’t discussed redeploying nuclear weapons and that the goal was still for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Still, the idea is now out there and it’s difficult to imagine officials in Beijing not squirming at the thought of having tactical nukes on South Korean soil for the first time in 19 years.
More immediately, the United States and South Korea have also announced their intention to conduct a joint military exercise in the Yellow Sea in response to the North Korean shelling, a drill that looks set to include the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. China has today said it’s concerned by the move, although in more measured terms than it used in August when the PLA warned of long-term damage to US-China ties if another drill went ahead.
The exercises, although they had been planned in some form anyway to take place this month, are still clearly a signal to North Korea, but perhaps also say something to China—if Beijing isn’t willing to turn the screws a little, then the US will have to do so.
There’s an ongoing debate about how much leverage China really has, a discussion complicated by the fact that Kim Jong-il is far from rational and so unlikely to respond to traditional forms of pressure in predictable ways. Still, the fact that he went calling not once, but twice to China this year—presumably in part to discuss the succession issue—suggests that Beijing does at least have his ear. Even if he doesn’t want to listen to what’s being said…