Korea and China

The conventional wisdom on North Korea’s nuclear test is that it’s out for the international prestige and insurance against a possible US attack that joining the nuclear club would provide. An alternative explanation of its actions comes from China Matters – it’s actually all about China.

North Korea’s weapons programs are meant to discommode China with the threat of a Asian arms race and the specter of Japan becoming a pro-active regional security force with US backing, and remind Beijing of the necessity of advancing North Korea’s interests on the world stage—in this particular case, getting China to support lifting some onerous U.S. financial sanctions.

Well, I believe China’s looked at its options and opportunities and decided that the best riposte to North Korea’s nuclear program is to strip Pyongyang of its independence in national defense and foreign affairs—in other words, assert virtually the same suzerainty that China imposed on the peninsula before the Japanese occupation in 1895.

(via) It’s been said that North Korea is angry over the freezing of its accounts in Macau and elswhere by the US, as these provide the country’s elite with the hard cash they so desperately need. But now China has joined in financially isolating the North (see the China Matters post above) the matter of motive becomes a little unclear.

North Korea wants to step out from under China’s patronage and become a player on the world stage. China doesn’t want it to – it trades more with South Korea than the North now, and is looking to a future where the Korean peninsula is at peace, with both nations under Chinese influence. However, China’s plans for North Korea to emulate its own economic reforms are running aground, simply because the North’s rulers are putting their foot down and saying no.

The two Koreas have a few factors in common, shaped by culture and history. The are fircely proud of their national heritage, and they are suspicious of Japan and China, their two larger neighbours who have both occupied Korea at various times in the past. Just as anti-US sentiment in South Korea is currently running high, the patron-client relationship between China and North Korea has slowly gone sour.

So what does this mean for the future of the region? China, angry at the North’s defiance, will carry on squeezing it, which in turn will only cause the regime to dig in its heels. I see no sign of a rapprochement between the two Koreas, and there is no incentive for China to talk to any of the other regional powers. Meanwhile, the US is realigning its forces in the Pacific, transferring forces from Japan and Korea to Guam, focusing on “capabilities, not numbers” – basically the lightweight, high-tech military strategy that is en vogue at the moment. They aren’t planning for a heavy-duty, full-scale invasion anytime soon.

Basically, the situation is in stalemate. China holds all the cards, and the current state of affairs is very much to its liking. The US, being unable to either destroy Kim Jong-Il or talk to him directly, is going to have to take a back seat for the forseeable future.


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