North Korea is China’s proxy, not an independent actor. United States policy needs to adjust to this reality, placing the onus for North Korea’s nuclear missile program where it belongs: in Beijing. Such a shift could defuse the immediate crisis on the Korean Peninsula while laying the groundwork for a resolution in line with U.S. national interests pending two policy changes.
First, announce that any North Korean nuclear strike will be treated as a nuclear strike from China. This treats the North Korean nuclear missile program in its proper context: an unconventional extension of China’s strategic nuclear missile program. It will also place China on notice that we have seen through the deception that North Korea acts alone.
Second, enact economic sanctions on China to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear program. International sanctions on North Korea will have no effect. Sanctions on China will have a direct effect. To this end, in late July, Japan blacklisted two Chinese firms for their ongoing trade with North Korea. The U.S. should reinforce Japan’s effort.
A look at culture, geography, and history inform these policy recommendations.
China has been the world’s largest empire for most of the past two millennia. China’s emperors considered peripheral kingdoms vassal states. China’s Communist Party leadership is reverting to form.
Geography is a harsh mistress and nations are its prisoners. For instance, China and India are rivals and will likely always be so. As an example, this eternal rivalry drives India’s foe Pakistan to be a close ally of China.
Korea’s history is integrally entwined with China’s. Recent history could be viewed in three chapters.
From the Korean War in 1950 to 1978, when the U.S. formally recognized communist China diplomatically, relations with North Korea were fraught with frequent, violent border incursions. One particularly noteworthy incident occurred in 1968, less than a week before the Vietnam War’s strategically decisive Tet Offensive, when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence ship, and its 83 crewmembers, diverting American attention from Vietnam where China had a stake in North Vietnamese success.
From 1978 to 1991, the U.S. and China were in a marriage of convenience against the Soviet Union. Some two-thirds of Soviet combat divisions were arrayed not against NATO, but on the Chinese border. During this period, North Korean provocations were at a low ebb.
Since the end of the Soviet threat to China in 1991, North Korea has reasserted itself as a thorn in America’s side. It is in this period when Pakistan shared nuclear technology with North Korea. China aided Pakistan in its quest to acquire nuclear weapons. President Bill Clinton dispatched former President Jimmy Carter to negotiate a deal to end the North Korean nuclear program in 1994 in exchange for billions of dollars in aid. But the North Koreans cheated on the agreement.
Today’s tense standoff with North Korea needs to be viewed in the context of their history with China. North Korea’s nuclear missile program is made in China. Yet American policy towards North Korea continues to operate as if North Korea is not China’s proxy.
North Korean threats against Guam are most instructive in this case, as is China’s vote for strengthened sanctions against North Korea in the U.N. Security Council last week.
After the Philippines ejected the U.S. from its sprawling Clark Air Base in 1991, the island territory of Guam became a key forward base for U.S. air power. U.S. Air Force assets in Guam hold China’s growing illegal presence in the South China Sea at risk. North Korea’s threats against Guam should be seen as a proxy for China’s fear of America’s ability to project power from Guam into the South China Sea.
China’s surprise U.N. vote to tighten economic sanctions against North Korea is not the victory it seems. China will cheat on the sanctions. China voted for the sanctions to buy more time for North Korea and to make North Korea appear to be more independent from China than it is.
North Korea is China’s cat’s-paw. The sooner we drop the fantasy that North Korea acts alone, the sooner we can defuse the present Korean crisis and get to the heart of the problem: China.
By Chuck DeVore