The North Korea nuclear problem has been one of the top security challenges encountered by the Trump administration. The Pyongyang Regime confronted the United States by missile tests and nuclear developments. During the National Parade, the leader, Kim Jong-Un, released harsh statements against the United States and threatened to strike America preemptively.
The United States reacted strongly.
The Secretary of State Tillerson ended the Strategic Patience toward North Korea; the United States Navy also dispatched the Aircraft Carrier Carl Vinson Strike Group to the Korean Peninsula. Another leading power in the region, China, also watched the developing situation carefully and the reacted accordingly. Rumor said the PLA concentrated a 150,000 men strong battle group along the Yalu River, the border river between China and North Korea (Although Chinese media soon dismissed this rumor).
President Xi Jinping of China also brought up this topic during his conversations with Donald Trump. President Trump’s attitude toward Korea was ambivalence. He was anti-North Korea and labeled it as a terrorist state. However, Trump released a statement that he was willing to sit and talk with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. The analysis says that President Xi persuaded Trump during their conversation to give up military plans against North Korea. It is alerting that not only Trump is easily influenced by the foreign leader, but also the White House lacks a concrete goal and plan in dealing with the North Korea.
The United States supports the collapse of the Pyongyang Regime and the unification of Korea Peninsula under the Seoul regime. However, there are several ways to achieve this goal, include military and peaceful solutions.
Some scholars and officials argue for a preventive war against Pyongyang. They claim that the United States could win the war without bearing any significant consequences; South Korea, not the United States, would suffer the damage. As North Korea gradually develops the capability to strike the United States, the military solution against North Korea will become almost impossible because of Pyongyang’s mutual destruction capability. However, unilateral strike on North Korea would betray the US-South Korea military alliance and significantly damage the reputation of the United States.
South Korea remains unprepared for war.
Neither the public nor the government are interested in unification. The unification would bring social and economic problems to South Korea, and the government has no detailed plan to solve them. A strike on the North might result in Pyongyang’s attack on the South. Seoul, the capital city that has around half of the South Korean population, is only 40 miles away from the Demilitarized Zone and therefore within range of the North Korean artillery force. Chemical and biological attack from the North using artillery would damage Seoul significantly. Because of the unpredictable feature of North Korea, the United States should pursue a peaceful solution and avoid the potential mass disastrous result of the war.
The United States must cooperate with the influential power in East Asia and the major supporter of North Korea, China, to solve the North Korea problem in a peaceful manner.
China tries to stay away from the chaos on the Korean Peninsula.
The Foreign Ministry repeatedly declared that the North Korea problem is a problem for the Americans and the South Koreans. However, as the most influential power in Asia, China cannot isolate itself from the regional security concerns. China is a responsible and influential state in the region, therefore, it should take more responsibilities in promoting regional security. The United States and China have the joint interest to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Washington should exploit this common interest, split China and North Korea, and gain cooperation from China in solving the North Korean problem.
Although Beijing and Pyongyang share similar socialist ideology, the relationship between the two states is not nearly as amicable as the official media usually tell. A deep ideological gap exists between China and North Korea. Just like CCP and CPSU, the Worker’s Party of Korea was not as monolithic as an iron plate. Several factions existed during the 1950s. After the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung purged different factions within the party to consolidate his power. One faction he purged, the Yan’an Faction, could trace its friendship and deep connections with the CCP back to the Yan’an era, before World War II.
China planned to overthrow Kim Il-Sung and replace him. In 1992, North Korea felt betrayed when China secretly established diplomatic relationship with South Korea. A profound sense of insecurity exists in North Korea. The government realizes that their Chinese friend is not reliable; Beijing is ready to betray them for greater interests. This uncertainty pushed North Korea to develop the nuclear weapon.
Recently, the Central News Agency of North Korea (KCNA) published an article and criticized the official media in China. KCNA attacked China’s slanders on the nuclear weapon projects and appeasement toward “the American Imperialism.” The article further declared that China is breaking the backbone of the Sino-North Korean friendship. A day later, People’s Daily of China rebuffed the claims from North Korea. The Chinese side made arguments that not only China was victimized by Kim Il-Sung’s decision to start the Korean War, but also the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang is abnormal and deteriorating.
It is the first-time Beijing admitted that North Korean, rather than the “Imperialists,” started the Korean War. This Sino-North Korea argument is like a flashback of the Sino-Soviet polemic during the early 1960s. The polemic between official media certainly hints the split between these two states and the change of attitude from Beijing. However, shortly after this article was published, the People’s Daily took down the article from its website. Clearly, someone from the top pressured the People’s Daily to take the article down. These self-contradicting moves shows that there are several factions within the Chinese leadership that views North Korea differently.
The current China-North Korea relationship is only based on mutual needs.
North Korea needs China to survive; China needs North Korea as a buffer zone. China doesn’t want to adjacent to the South Korea and the American troops. The United States is the overwhelming power in the Northeast Asia, and China needs North Korea to balance the influence of the United States and direct the pressure of Washington from Beijing to Pyongyang.
China tolerates North Korea to deter threats from the United States; however, Beijing won’t tolerate North Korea if the Pyongyang regime becomes a greater threat to China than the United States. North Korea’s misbehavior irritates China. The nuclear tests cause earthquakes and the fear of nuclear radiation in Manchuria. North Korea exports counterfeit RMB and drug into China. The North Korean soldiers also cross the Yalu River and commit crimes. Beijing also fears the possibility that North Korea’s unilateral actions could pull China into an undesired war.
China’s North Korea policy is ambivalent because Beijing still tries to value the harms and benefits of Pyongyang regime. China also fears the potential consequences when North Korea collapses, such as the refugee and the nuclear proliferation problems.
However, THAAD might bring China’s ambivalence policy to an end. THAAD is the anti-missile system that will significantly reduce China’s missile strike ability. The nuclear tests by North Korea generated public fear of South Korea and gave the Americans the excuse to bring THAAD into the Korea Peninsula. The THAAD deployment exemplifies how the misbehavior of North Korea becomes a security problem for China; Beijing is stuck into the undesirable security dilemma between Washington and Pyongyang that only leads to more American military presence and threat in East Asia.
The United States should exploit the conflict between China and the North Korea and cooperate with China to solve the North Korea problem. China is North Korea’s biggest supporter. Cooperation with China will cut the largest outside support of North Korea. China supports Pyongyang because Beijing wants to maintain the current situation and thinks the fall of North Korea might lead to more negative consequences.
To win Beijing’s cooperation, the United States must show the Chinese leadership that China is safer without North Korea. The United States can decrease the level of pressure against China in exchange for China’s unreserved support and help on solving the North Korea problem.
China desperately wants a talk. The United States should enter into a serious discussion with China about the Korean Peninsula and persuade China to support them. The deployment of THAAD becomes an important bargaining chip with China and the starting point of a Sino-US discussion. While China has been harshly reacting to the deployment of THAAD system into South Korea, the United States could pull out THAAD in exchange for China’s support on a sanction that ultimately ends all trade with North Korea and completely isolates the Pyongyang regime.
This deal on THAAD would open a gate for Sino-American discussion and negotiation on the future of the Korea Peninsula. The United States could demand China’s vital support for a successful regime change in North Korea. Washington could get Beijing’s support for the re-unification of the peninsula by South Korea, either by some internal regime collapse or by military intervention, offering China the promise of a withdrawall of all American troops from the peninsula after the unification and the nuclear disarmament of the Korean peninsula.
As the famous Acheson’s Speech indicated, the Korean Peninsula was not the primary interest of the American defense strategy in the East Asia; the Acheson’s Speech even placed the Korea Peninsula outside of the American sphere of influence. The Korean War entangled the United States to the Korea Peninsula and forced the them to take the responsibility to protect South Korea for almost 70 years. The unification of the Korea Peninsula would end this costly American involuntary involvement.
The unification by Seoul would also be a significant victory for liberal democracy and capitalism over totalitarian dictatorship. In this age of uncertainty, when democracy is shaking and under questioning, such victory could significantly boost the reputation of the United States and reinforce the American’s support for liberal democracy around the world.
After Beijing and Washington reach a consensus, South Korea, and even Japan, should join the negotiation process. The discussion would focus on drafting plans for the actual unification process and formulating solutions to potential challenges, such as the refugee and nuclear proliferation problems. A four-party talk would increase mutual trust and set the new order in Northeast Asia.
North Korea is the biggest national security problem faced by President Trump. However, opportunity comes with crisis. Radical actions by North Korea only accelerate its collapse. The deeper Pyongyang continues on the one-way road, the less support and more criticisms North Korea receives from the international community.
The United States should exploit the Beijing-Pyongyang split just like they took advantage of the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1970s. Cooperation with China would not only solve the North Korea problem but also increase mutual trust between Beijing and Washington and would set a new pattern of international cooperation among big powers to face regional crises.🔷