Arrias on Politics: China and North Korea

China, that is, the ruling elite in Beijing, isn’t helping things. Talking heads can be heard opining that the only way to solve the mess in North Korea is with China’s help. But, the truth is a bit more complicated.

Beijing wants to carve out a larger piece of the pie (the world). How big is a good question, but as Cicero was fond of saying: “Deeds, not words.” Despite regular words of peace, they’re engaged in a rapid expansion on all fronts, seeking to stake out a real, and dominant, presence across the globe. They’re staking out control of the South China Sea, are flexing their muscles in the East China Sea (over Japanese islands), and are working on establishing a real presence in Central Asia and the Horn of Africa.

And North Korea can play a role in that global endeavor.

China is far and away the largest trading partner of the North Koreans, counting on China for the overwhelming majority of the oil it consumes, as well as filling annual shortfalls in food production.

So, why can’t China do something about the North Korean nuclear weapon and missile development programs?

As has been widely reported, North Korea is engaged in an aggressive program– what’s known in the US as “RDT&E,” Research, Development, Test and Evaluation – of missiles, weapons, and associated gear. (Just this past week there was press speculation that a new tactical missile launcher for a North Korean missile is a Chinese made truck, a possible violation of international agreements.) In the last several years the number of tests conducted by the North has increased, one public estimate being that during his 5 years in office Kim Jong Un has conducted 4 or 5 times as many missiles launches as his father conducted in 17 years as dictator.

The nuclear weapon development program continues as well, and the UN has reported that North Korea is now producing Lithium-6, a radioactive isotope of lithium that, per numerous defense experts, is a necessary material in the manufacturing of tritium, a key component of a hydrogen (fusion) bomb.

Here’s the thing: this is expensive. With a GDP of less than $30 billion, more than a million people in their army, perennially facing food and energy crises, where does Pyongyang find the money, and the technology, to pursue these weapons and systems? While we can speculate that Iran, flush with cash following the easing of sanctions, is a partial source, it’s simply not credible that this activity would be taking place without the explicit knowledge and at least implicit agreement of the leadership in Beijing.

Imagine South Korea, or Japan, were known to be developing a nuclear weapon. Beijing would be apoplectic; we could expect a continuous stream of invective from their leadership, and loud and aggressive military posturing, tied to vociferous demands in the UN for draconian sanctions. But, while Beijing will occasionally call for North Korea to end testing, and will announce it intends to adhere to existing sanctions, in fact it continues to trade with Pyongyang.

The reality is this activity by North Korea suits Beijing. Beijing may not particularly revel in the idea that Kim Jong Un will someday soon have nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t worry them; Beijing knows those weapons will never be used against Beijing. Further, there’s no desire in Beijing, no matter what they might say, for a unified Korea. Such a Korea would be, even under the rule of Pyongyang, a thorn in China’s side. Under the rule of Seoul, it would mean a US ally with a common border to China, an unacceptable situation; a unified Korea is simply not something Beijing wants to see.

But the continued rule of Kim Jong Un? Prolonged crisis just short of war? That represents problems, and costs, to the US, the ROK, and to Japan. And increased US commitments of forces into Korea means forces not available elsewhere. All that benefits Beijing. China will talk a good game, but there’s nothing that China has done in the recent past, nor anything it is now doing, that suggests Beijing will in any way work to resolve the situation in North Korea. In fact, Beijing likes it just as it’s developing. Solutions might be found working with the Republic of Korea and Japan.

But China is not on our side.

Copyright 2017 Arrias

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