North Korea: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (China)

The situation with North Korea can seem confusing and infuriating. Why does North Korea provoke and then act friendly? Why is it so bent on getting nukes? Is Kim crazy? Why does China support North Korea, a would-be nuclear power in its backyard?

The answers to all these questions become pretty clear if you think of them as North Korean or Chinese leaders would. Why does North Korea yo-yo? Simple: it really wants nukes. Every time talks and improving relations get to the point where there's nowhere to go but giving them up, Kim starts the cycle from the beginning. He provokes, gets everyone riled up, then quiets down before a real mess starts and asks for negotiations again. All this buys time and has thus far avoided any real armed conflict. North Korea is closer to being able to launch nuclear warheads that can travel long distances, a considerable increase in its deterrent capability. At the same time, no one has attacked North Korea. A pretty successful strategy, from Kim's perspective.

But why is he so bent on getting nukes? This one is easy: no one invades a country with nukes, especially ones that pose a credible threat (they're borderline in North Korea, but still a risk), especially when no one is sure where they all are (the case in North Korea and Iran).

This leaves us with the last question: what's China's plan? Let's be China for a moment. What do we want? The same things most other countries want: autonomy in our internal affairs, security internationally, and to be able to trade freely with the rest of the world. North Korea would seem to cause insecurity, and America is a supporter of free trade, both ideologically and physically, with its naval presence in the western Pacific. This would seem to encourage China to take the US side on North Korea. It doesn't, because China dislikes US pressure to change its internal situation (criticism of the management of its exchange rate or its human rights record, for example) and sees its ability to project power in its region limited only by the US presence there, regardless of US intentions. These concerns seem to override, or at least ameliorate, China's worries over North Korea. The old diplomatic adage "let's you and him fight" applies here. China welcomes a distraction for America, while also free-riding on American action (it does not really want North Korea to become more powerful). China is also afraid of a collapse of the Kim regime because this might cause streams of refuges into China.

What should the US do? It is currently being duped by North Korea and China: paying for security in the region while not getting anywhere as far as its goals in the region. As I've argued previously, the US should make this China's problem. It should back up South Korea (and Japan) in the region where necessary, but it should not take the lead. This would force China to be more actively involved. It would make it impossible for China to free-ride on US peace-keeping and would also reduce the distraction-factor with regard to North Korea. It would also help to allay concerns about America's strong presence in the region because America would be speaking softly (while still carrying a "big stick"; Teddy Roosevelt would approve). China wishes to be a world power and claims to want peace. Here is its chance.


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