The current discussion over what to do about North Korea’s underground nuclear test and expected follow-up detonation should be expanded to place Kim Jong Il’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into the context of the region and of history. Whether or not America, Japan and South Korea ought to embargo or blockade North Korea for its nuclear weapons program pales in significance relative to what China believes its interests in the region happen to be.
China will determine North Korea’s fate—and it may act sooner and in a more forceful fashion than anyone outside Beijing would even remotely consider as being possible today.
While the former Soviet Union ultimately acquiesced to the reunification of Germany, China may force the reunification of Korea because it is in its best interests to do so. There are five compelling reasons for China to act decisively on the Korean question.
First, China does not wish to give Japan the excuse to develop its own nuclear arsenal. A nuclear-armed Kim Jong Il gives Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a compelling reason to arm Japan with nuclear weapons. Japan has enough plutonium to build some 8,000 nuclear warheads and it has the technology to build the missiles to deliver them accurately to Beijing. It may also encourage other Asian powers to seek to acquire nuclear weapons; Taiwan being foremost among these.
Second, China believes it can work a transformational quid pro quo with South Korea’s leadership. The deal? China would topple North Korea in exchange for South Korea’s promise to eject all U.S. military forces from the peninsula. South Korea’s president, Roh Moo-hyun, is well-known for his strongly held anti-U.S. and nationalist beliefs. Reunifying Korea and removing all U.S. forces from Korean soil would cement Roh’s status as a truly historic Korean leader.
Third, reunifying Korea would effectively eliminate Korea as an economic competitor to China for two decades as South Korea would expend about $2 trillion to rebuild the North to bring it up to the South’s standards.
Fourth, a united Korea preoccupied with rebuilding the North would share a long and vulnerable border with China, forcing Korea completely into a Chinese tributary orbit, as it has been for much of its history. This would represent a strategic Chinese diplomatic victory and would represent a blow to Japan and the United States.
Fifth, and perhaps just as important as all the other reasons, a Korea reunited under the auspices of China would greatly strengthen China’s hand in demanding the same of Taiwan, even though the historical case for unification is weak while the moral case is nonexistent.
When considering what we might see in the coming weeks from China, let us not forget history. In late 1950 China quietly positioned more than 300,000 troops along its border with Korea in preparation to intervene into the Korean conflict. In November of that year, some 30 Chinese infantry divisions maneuvered south and attacked, achieving a major strategic surprise on the 425,000 member-strong UN command operating under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
In 1979 there was another example of a massive Chinese surprise attack. China assaulted Vietnam to teach it a lesson over Vietnam’s actions in Cambodia and its close ties with the old Soviet Union. China fought on for 29 days, losing more men in less than a month than America did in some 12 years of fighting in Vietnam. China may be a modern and powerful nation today, but its leadership is largely of the same genus that existed 27 years ago. In other words, they are capable of bold, decisive, and, if necessary, bloody action.
China’s border with Korea is about 300 miles long. The vast majority of North Korea’s forces are massed on the border with South Korea. If the leaders in Beijing opted to remove the North Korean regime by force they could easily do so. The communist north would be wholly unable to resist the modern Chinese army whose advance into North Korea would probably not even be resisted, at least not effectively.
China can do the preceding with our without America’s approval. We need to plan for the unification of Korea and consider its aftermath, taking prudent steps to reinforce our relationship with the region’s democracies, including Japan and Taiwan.
North Korea’s suspected nuclear test and potential follow-on tests will likely change the region in ways that neither Kim Jong Il nor the U.S. leadership expects. China has the initiative and they will act when they think action is needed.