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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Call it a hunch

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 25th, 2002

VOA News: Bush-Jiang Summit May Focus on Iraq, N. Korea Nuclear Issues. Hmm, thanks, might not have guessed that on my own.

Moving over to the “for what it’s worth” department, China denies helping N. Korean nuclear programme (Muzi.com lateline news). Given rumors of Pakistani and/or Russian help with the latest North Korean nuclear weapons effort; it may even be true, at least technically. It’s hard to see how China actually benefits from a nuclear armed rogue state on its border.

Finally, in the “blogger speculation” department (which is what we [don’t] get paid to do, right?) Aziz Poonawalla points to some thinking out loud by Suman Palit (“Kolkata Libertarian”), to the effect that North Korea needs to mind what China tells it to do, and other reasons why North Korea is deterrable and action against it can be postponed. I agree with Mr. Palit about China’s influence on North Korea — should they choose to use it. But there’s the rub; I think “deterrable” in the context of North Korea misses the point. “Deterrence” is about preventing a country from starting a war. What Palit is really talking about is “containable” or “capable of being influenced”, both of which require interested, motivated parties to do the containing and influencing. Palit points to diplomatic pressure by China to get North Korea to return to the 1994 agreement. We’ll see whether that’s pro forma pressure or whether it’s accompanied by threats of reducing fuel shipments to North Korea, the quickest way to bring pain to that government.

But that assumes China sees a need to do so. It seems likely to me that China has good enough intelligence in North Korea to have not been surprised or alarmed by anything North Korea is doing. But even if they didn’t, the situation may not seem very dire from Beijing’s point of view.

North Korea has two weapons programs that rightly worry the U.S. and the Western world: its missile program, and its nuclear program. Neither is necessarily threatening to China: to me, the missile program seems likeliest to be intended as a source of foreign exchange, in both the form of covert sales to other countries (a very legitimate worry to the United States), and in the form of forcing dialogue for “aid” with the European Union and the United States. China may see North Korea in this respect the way Toyota sees Hyundai — a competitor, but not a mortal threat — to the extent they are joining that market (I have no idea, to be honest) or likelier the way Sony sees Hyundai, if they don’t. It’s altogether unlikely that the missiles will ever be fired at China, since China’s principal adversaries already have missiles of their own*, and China is North Korea’s only ideological partner and ally to any extent.

That leaves the nuclear weapons. They, too, are not directed at China; at current levels (zero to two, as near as I can guesstimate from the news), their main military purpose can only be deter an American/South Korean attack; now American troops or (given the missiles) Japanese cities would be under the threat of nuclear retaliation. We may believe the chances of such a U.S. attack are nil; the North Korean military may not. The secondary purpose may again be foreign exchange. Again, there’s not necessarily any compelling interest for the Chinese to intervene, let alone intervene forcefully. Inducements from the United States will be needed for any more than the bare minimum of cooperation in containing and/or reversing North Korea’s weapons programs.

It’s possible the one result for the Chinese out of all of this is that they want a unified Korea less than ever, since that country will have an active nuclear weapons program; South Korea could probably develop its own in a relatively short time, but there’s nothing like already having a nuclear weapon to get others to quit trying to keep you from getting it — or at least become a lot more careful about trying.

If you believe, on the other hand, that China is seriously worried about the North Korean weapons programs, my guess is that they could be at the DMZ within [distance from Yalu River to DMZ ] / [20 miles per hour] + [time for lunch and rest stops]; North Korean land defenses “point south” for the most part, not north (except, of course, for those nuclear weapons). Especially with US cooperation — attack and destroy missile sites and weapons facilities — this could be a “just between us superpowers” thing. In an equally unlikely followon scenario, China might actually allow reunification in exchange for dismantling the nuclear program, an ironclad pledge of nonproliferation by Korea — and withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Taken altogether, that might actually make sense for everyone, and is therefore vanishingly improbable.

So I’m guessing China won’t do much. Does that mean we must? Not really, and not necessarily before Iraq, if you accept that’s necessary. While China may not be interested in forcing North Korea to do anything, it may be willing to help keep them from exporting weapons by sealing its borders and permitting a focussed blockade of North Korea: no weapons in or out, possibly inspections-on-demand to see what’s going on inside North Korea (but no consequences spelled out). What will be interesting is how much it will take to get even that level of cooperation.

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*Except perhaps Taiwan. I would think even North Korea wouldn’t make that mistake, though.

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