North Korea: China’s Ace in the Hole
By Cameron Harris
With the recent calming of North Korean rhetoric, it appears as if the skeptics were correct in assuming that North Korea would not actually attack the United States or South Korea. However, with long-term goals on the line for Chinese and North Korean policy makers, they were successful in causing a hiccup in the progress of regional stability, as well as weakening the image and message of American diplomacy. The last bout of North Korean rhetoric showed an important shift in power away from the United States and towards China.
Unilateral action against North Korea could incite a nuclear war, and so policy makers have opted to react to the growing amounts of vitriolic rhetoric from Kim Jong-un. This has included moving missile defense systems to Guam, and re-enforcing U.S. ties to security commitments in South Korea and Japan. China and North Korea have succeeded in pushing a wedge in traditional U.S. alliances in the region for three important reasons.
First, North Korea is currently playing a major role in shifting trust (or certainty) away from the United States and towards China. For as long as the United States continues to maintain influence in the region, it will continue in its role as the primary security provider. However, as was seen in the most recent headlines from North Korea, China tried to step in as the mediator. What occurred through a simple offer of mediation was a qualitative shift in roles that could help Beijing to further its message that Chinese Stability will provide the security that American Democracy won’t. This shift is backed by increased Chinese military clout in the region, which allows the Chinese to attempt to step in as the dominant political power in the region.
Second, the continued failure of the United States to effectively settle the Korean Peninsula’s problem may result in serious weakening of U.S. involvement in Asia over the long term. Most recently, continued confidence in the U.S. security umbrella seemed to be wavering, as was reported in a Wall Street Journal article. Initial tremors may lead to a long term loss of credibility if concerns are not effectively addressed. When China shows that U.S. actions are decreasing the stability of the region, and more importantly that Chinese efforts increase security and stability, strategic allies may turn their allegiances towards the Chinese.
Finally, China has every interest in the world to sustain North Korea on one hand, while supporting international efforts against it on the other. North Korea is China’s buffer in the Pacific to the 29,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, yet the buffer is more than defensive. Having a nuclear armed North Korea is also the military check to any large scale U.S. military action in the Pacific. In this way they can maintain a strategic diplomatic maneuverability that U.S. policy makers simply do not have—by keeping North Korea on a leash.
Thus the U.S. has been trapped in a position where responding to North Korean rhetoric and operations potentially provokes another inconclusive war on the Korean Peninsula; which is almost as unsavory as not responding to North Korean rhetoric. To ignore Kim Jong-un would leave our allies feeling isolated and vulnerable in the face of the North’s nuclear weapons, consequentially weakening the strength of U.S. security commitments in the Pivot by degrees.
In order to contest Chinese diplomatic strength on this issue, the U.S. should try working with China to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program while simultaneously shifting the cause of the problem onto China’s lap. This policy option would entail a masterful publicity campaign in the region to sell the U.S. image and guarantee. The U.S. must sell its vision and brand in a market increasingly threatened by the Chinese. For the contest at hand is not that of military superiority—all parties involved recognize that the U.S. way of war is still the most powerful in the world. Rather, this contest is one of long term ideology. This contest is to decide whether the messy democratic capitalism championed by the U.S. can provide the same strength and security as the Chinese single party capitalism. In large part, the region is deciding who will be the best support in terms of long term economic and regional security.