This article was posted on the website of the Canadian Defence Association Institute on 19 September 2018.
Photocredit: Time Magazine 20 May 2014
Part II: Seeing through the China Russia North Korea Agenda
Western observers almost invariably claim that China is opposed to Kim the Third’s nuclear bombast, that Beijing means what it says when it criticizes North Korea, that it is determined to implement the sanctions it has systematically signed-up for in the United Nations Security Council, that Beijing has been antagonized by Pyongyang’s putative efforts to blackmail it, and so on.
There is no concrete evidence whatsoever to back up any of these assumptions.
China’s campaign to rein in North Korea’s efforts belongs to the “bricks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” school of international relations. The sanctions regimes have been badly implemented or not at all. For example, North Korea is almost totally reliant on China for the oil that it needs to run its economy. Chinese oil has, however, continued to flow to North Korea, notwithstanding the limitations on trade. And it flows through a pipeline, free from the prying scrutiny of Western intelligence.
There is no reason whatsoever to believe that the latest sanctions regime imposed on North Korea – that which Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, has described as the most aggressive ever – will make any difference. Of course, China and Russia will undertake efforts to underscore that they are serious about implementing the sanctions regime; they may even do one or two things that suggest that this is really happening. The point of all this will be to signal that they are serious about cutting North Korea down to size, whereas what they really want is to be able to continue to use North Korea for their own strategic purposes, even as they attempt to keep it under control.
A second argument is that, with its militarism, Pyongyang seeks to embarrass the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, thereby putting pressure on Beijing to convince the Americans to sit down at the negotiating table. Nonsense. The Chinese President wants nothing more than for Donald Trump, the American President, to parley with his North Korean counterpart. The working assumption is that this would lead to some version of the arrangements that Russia and China have been militating for: an end to the North Korean nuclear build-up in exchange for a winding down of the joint U.S.-South Korean annual military exercises. This would mark a major step towards the strategic de-linking of South Korea and Japan from the U.S.
Some observers have even put forward the notion that North Korea wants to threaten China with its nuclear weapons to deflect its (non-existent) efforts to rein it in. Hogwash of the first order. China needs Kim the Third to be doing exactly what he is doing … scaring the wits out of the Americans and their allies without going over the top strategically.
An underlying theme is that the Korean crisis is also about the fact that an out-of-control guy, desperate to show his foreign policy muscles to obscure his domestic policy failings, is now in the Oval Office. This is what Russian President Vladamir Putin has recently argued. I do not agree with Putin on pretty well anything, but here he has a point, even if his own policies as Russian President stand in gross contradiction to his criticism of Trump. The American President is one of the wild cards in this pack.
And note that while Russia is much less important economically and strategically to North Korea than the latter is to China, there is again no evidence that it has undertaken any effort to check Kim the Third’s efforts. Russia continues to provide it with oil and to receive North Korean workers on construction projects in its Far East. It has recently had the gall to defend these efforts with a humanitarian argument. If Moscow was really interested in the situation confronting the North Korean population, it would take a radically different tack.
No, the overwhelming trend points to Beijing and Moscow working individually, but also very possibly together, in an effort to instrumentalize North Korea’s bellicosity to advance their own interests.
Against this background, the almost perfect ploy has so far been working admirably. Doubts about the credibility of the American security guarantee in Asia and elsewhere are gathering steam. With his recent criticism of South Korea for its unfair trading practices and strategic free-riding, Trump has been doing exactly what Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow are gunning for.
That said, the almost perfect ploy could easily backfire for its initiators – and big time at that!
North Korea’s machinations may spark an effort on the part of South Korea and Japan to build-up their military capacity and develop more national responsibility for their own defences. The new South Korean government has recently gone ahead with the deployment of the entire THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) anti-aircraft system proposed by Washington, after initially raising environmental concerns about its deployment and seeking to limit the number of systems to be deployed.
There is talk in the South Korean parliament about redeploying the tactical nuclear weapons that the Americans withdrew in the early 1990s. The national security debate in Japan is much more complicated owing to its role in the Second World War, but here as well we can expect a growing preparedness to take national defence more seriously.
At the same time, there is an ever-present risk that the China-Russia North Korean subterfuge will end-up being disclosed. This would have huge domestic and foreign implications for both countries, none of them good for these countries’ respective political elites. Imagine, for example, how your average Russian would react to knowing that his country was bankrolling the North Korean nuclear effort. This is a country where GDP per capita has fallen massively over the last decade under the impact of economic and political mismanagement, the plummeting price of energy products and the various sanctions regimes imposed on it after Russia’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. To be seen to be using the resources of the Russian state to prop-up a regime with which the vast majority of Russians have absolutely no connection to would not go over well at street level.
The third potential downside of the almost perfect ploy is the risk of strategic miscalculation. I expect that Beijing and Moscow believe themselves capable of controlling the North Korean nuclear cum ballistic missile build-up, with financial and personnel resources or other means. But the history of the world is replete with situations when the controllers lost control. Think, for example, of the lead-up to the First World War when the great powers of the times found themselves unable to hold to account the smaller ones they had expected to invariably defer to them.
So, the North Korean elite could prove to be to the next global conflict what its Bosnian Serb counterpart was to the first.