North Korea is a state that has made it clear it does not intend to act according to international standards; it fulfills the definition of ‘rogue state’ perfectly. It also threatens the security of its neighbours. China, North Korea’s only ally, holds the key to resolving this dangerous situation. However China is caught in a precarious position. I argue that China and America can work through the North Korean dilemma together. To do this I present a past example of compromise.
To understand the nature of the Kim dynasty and North Korea’s foreign policy today, one must first understand history. The United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea, a colonial possession of a defeated Japan, in 1945. North Korea fell into the Soviet sphere of influence, while Japan and South Korea would remain allied with the United States. In June of 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. The world’s Cold War-era balance of power meant a civil war between communist and democratic factions would lead to foreign intervention. A UN sanctioned ‘police action’ meant a US led coalition would act to defend democratic South Korea.
Initial North Korean victories meant United States and South Korean forces were pushed back to the Pusan Perimeter, on the southernmost tip of the peninsula. Meanwhile China acted to secure the Korean border, fearing the potential consequences of an American victory. During the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter, UN forces led by General Douglas MacArthur repelled the Korean People’s Army forces and turned the tide of the war. Subsequent campaigns saw US and South Korean forces push the Korean People’s Army forces past the 38th parallel: the North-South Korean border. When US forces neared the Chinese-Korean border, China intervened. Chinese and North Korean forces would push the United States back to the border area. Negotiations would bring about an armistice however the war would never officially end; the border between North and South Korea remains the world’s most heavily defended. To this day North Korea remains both allied to China and an enemy of South Korea and the United States.
All in the family
Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea from 1948 – 1994, his son Kim Jong-il would secede him and his grandson Kim Jong-un embodies the dynastic chain today. The Jong-il and Jong-un governments have made provocative military actions a cornerstone of the regime’s foreign policy. In March of 2010 the North Korean navy is believed to have sunk the South Korean vessel Cheonan with a torpedo. In November North Korea shelled the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong. North Korea’s 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests lead most to assume the nation possesses limited nuclear capabilities. However nuclear capabilities are not enough to threaten the security of neighbouring state, the Korean People’s army must possess a way of launching a nuclear warhead.
The security threat North Korea’s ‘space program’ presents
Even if North Korea were able to mount a nuclear weapon to one of its existing military rockets (a technology it has yet to master) its nuclear capabilities would only threaten South Korea and Japan. The only North Korean military rocket to have been successfully launched is its Nodong missile, an improved version of the Russian ‘scud’ chain of missiles. This missile’s range is limited, only South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and Mongolia fall in its potential trajectory. Although China, Russia, and Mongolia all fall within this range, Pyongyang is not likely to attack these states. North Korea is still ‘at war’ with South Korea and the United States.
Although North Korea possesses military rockets with further range, it has yet to successfully test them as tests like these are extremely provocative. However last Wednesday North Korea launched a satellite into space. Not surprisingly mastering this feat and the feat of successfully launching an intercontinental ballistic missile with much further range than a Nodong missile takes transferable technology. After all, both techniques are considered rocket science. Therefore North Korea’s 12 December launch can be seen as a step in the direction of launching a missile at farther targets. The Unha-3 rocket that carried the regime’s satellite into space in effect extends the potential range in which existing Korean missiles reach. With further technological advances North Korea could threaten the United States‘ security, its enemy since 1950.
A call for action
There have been repeated rounds of sanctions and condemnation from the international community, however North Korea’s complete disregard for international peace warrants a stronger response. Should Kim Jong-un become further emboldened, the violence will surely escalate. It is likely Pyongyang will continue to push the limits. Past incidents of North Korean military aggression prove South Korea already faces major security threats. Therefore the time to act on North Korea is now, before the situation deteriorates further.
China’ precarious position
China hopes to gain great-power status in the international state system, but its ally in Pyongyang continues to put the region’s security in jeopardy. By being allied to a state that makes no attempt to abide by international norms China risks its legitimacy and thus its acceptance as a great-power in the region and the international community. Although China has expressed regret over North Korea’s nuclear testing and rocket launches, and the two regimes have often clashed, Beijing has yet to fully abandon its ally. This is because Beijing fears that should it attempt to forcefully influence North Korea, a spurned Kim Jong-un would lash out violently, provoking South Korea and subsequently America. A war against a Chinese ally on the Chinese border in which US forces are involved would be anathema to Beijing, it would mean China was losing influence in its region. A unified Korea would likely be an American ally, and could be used to check China’s rise. Thus China believes its only hope is that the situation remains as it appears today, it hopes for stability on the Korean Peninsula above all else.
The ticking time bomb
Although the above call for action is certainly warranted, the United States will not become involved militarily on the Korean Peninsula today because North Korea is China’s ally and falls in China’s sphere of influence. But should North Korea continue to act violently (a likely development) it could cause a war with America. This seems especially likely when one considers the North Korea’s satellite launch, as previously mentioned this is a step in the direction of endangering US security. The Pentagon constantly stations around 30,000 troops in both South Korea and Japan and as I argued in the Dragon’s Navy – Chinese Capabilities and American Policy, the United States must remain the dominant naval power in the Western Pacific. Therefore assuming the situation continues to grow more dangerous, the United States will eventually become involved. North Korea thus represents a ticking time bomb to Beijing.
The obvious question
What if China were to both act to remove Kim Jong-un from power and seek to maintain a strong relationship with a unified Korea? China already does more trade with South Korea, maybe it is time for China to force the two to unify. Perhaps America could agree Seoul’s new government would remain neutral, and would remove its troops from a unified Korea. China would likely agree to reunification on these terms.
Unfortunately there are many problems with this scenario. First of all, Chinese foreign policy rests on a doctrine of non-intervention. China has thus far not exported an ideology or colonized land, it would be simply hypocritical to start now. Secondly, America would want to ensure China was not simply throwing its weight around, it may act to either counter China’s aggression towards North Korea, or act vengefully after. Thirdly, even if China were to ‘ok’ its actions with Washington, the Pentagon would at the very least insist US Special Forces secured North Korea’s nuclear-program sites. As mentioned above, US forces acting within China’s sphere of influence would be seen as a foreign policy failure to Beijing.
But what if China and the United States could overcome their differences on North Korea? Perhaps Xi Jinping and Barack Obama could strike a deal wherein a mixture of covert and non-covert actions would see the Kim dynasty removed and Korea unified. There must be a compromise in which a conflict between the two is avoided while both save-face. The deal would have to specify that a unified Korea would remain neutral, and the US would likely have to withdraw its troops. Although 1950 saw war between Cold War rivals China and America, 1962 saw a compromise between the US and the USSR. John F. Kennedy worked out a secret deal with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This deal saw both super-powers compromise. The USSR removed its missiles from Cuba while the US promised not to invade Cuba and removed its missiles from Turkey. To retain his image as a ‘cold warrior,’ the second part of Kennedy’s deal was kept secret. I argue the situation today can also be overcome, but China and America must first make some back-room deals similar to those made 50 years ago.
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