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China’s Role in the North Korean Puzzle

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China Power

China’s Role in the North Korean Puzzle

Can China actually take a leading role on the North Korea issue?

China’s Role in the North Korean Puzzle
Credit: United Nations Photo

Last week the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States were in Washington, D.C. to remount a political charge against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s recent behavior.

It’s encouraging to see President Xi Jinping chip in for world peace alongside Asia’s other power brokers, as it is to see Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye shake hands despite their recent shiver of ill will over “comfort women” and territorial claims, the usual suspects.

But what these leaders aren’t discussing is perhaps the most important thing of all: their own behavior.

This isn’t to suggest North Korea has been a basket of sweetness and light. Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear detonation was in January, followed by ballistic missile tests in February and simulated artillery attacks on Seoul. More recently, North Korea created a video depicting nuclear hellfire raining down on Washington, D.C., the U.S. flag in flames and what appears to be the American Cemetery at Normandy.

It’s precisely the sort of tantrum analysts have come to expect from the regime. But consider the timing: immediately prior to the annual joint military exercises currently being held by South Korea and the United States. These, generally among the largest military drills on the planet, are purposed to maintain military cooperation and streamline tactical protocol in the event of a North Korean strike.

Put another way, Washington and Seoul are practicing improved ways to crush Pyongyang while flexing their military supremacy and hoping Kim Jong-un will take the indelicate hint that war wouldn’t bode well for him. Also, as David Eunpyoung Jee writes, “responding with an equal or greater show of force would mean a major setback to the North Korean economy. This explains North Korea’s asymmetric responses of missile launches, nuclear threats, and information warfare.”

Certainly, it would be difficult not to be menaced by the terrifying ferocity of an F-22 Raptor or a naval force that can mill entire mountain ranges into dust. Yes, North Korea has the world’s fourth largest standing army, but by all appearances goose-stepping is their realm of expertise, while the tip of the spear that is the U.S. Army is none less than Delta Force. By the same token, no sane strategist would wish to face down the White Tigers of South Korea, whose members earn three different black belts before they’re even admitted.

Yet these intimidation tactics always fall utterly flat. The North flashes its teeth, puffs up its chest to prove it won’t be bullied, and round and round we go. And if you doubt these drills are designed to intimidate, recall that after the recent nuclear test, Washington and Seoul didn’t just conduct the exercises, they made the drills the largest ever. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council decided to hit the regime with its harshest sanctions yet. But will stiffer sanctions work any better than shock and awe?

Andrei Lankov, a Korean studies scholar based in Seoul, doesn’t think so. In a January piece for BloombergView, Lankov raises three points.

First, not only have sanctions never worked, but when they started in 2006, after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, they coincided with North Korea’s economic uptick. Why? Because China doesn’t play along. And guess what — already this week CNN reports China is ignoring the latest sanctions.

Second, even if China were to comply, the force required for sanctions to produce uprisings would have to be “appallingly strong,” Lankov writes, noting that when half a million North Koreans died of famine in the 1990s, “commoners died quietly.”

Third, Lankov questions whether we should even hope for revolution since it would, for the first time in human history, leave us with a nuclear nation in chaos, a far greater danger than we currently face. The Korean term makjang, or end of a mine shift, describes a situation so bad it cannot get worse. So as Pyongyang faces down the plunging fire of Asia’s major players, we ought to weigh the value of not trying to shove someone’s back against a wall when they’ve got a nuke strapped to their chest.

That’s where China comes in. Rather than hypocritically shake hands over sanctions then volte-face and ignore them, Xi ought to honor his word so we can finally gauge whether operative sanctions are useful. Otherwise he should table alternative solutions. It’s an opportunity for Beijing not simply to participate, but take the helm and lead the region forward. Or it’s a good photo op, allowing him to sit at the adult table and mime a nobler form of leadership, before flying home and resuming business as usual.