North Korea Conundrum - Unsustainable Logjam
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 28 Dec , 2017

North Korea has put its allies and adversaries on the edge by irrational and unpredictable behaviour. It has created a strategic predicament for China because the longer Kim Jong Un stays greater will be the fallout of the conflict in terms of collateral damage and strategic instability. In case of direct conflict between the US and North Korea, China may lose a buffer state with whom their relationship was once described by Mao Zedong like “lips and teeth.”

US Defence Secretary James Mattis in his stern message to North Korea has warned that any threat to the US and its allies would be responded to with massive retaliation. He further said “Our commitment among the allies are ironclad, any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.” He also made it clear that the endeavour will not be total annihilation but denuclearisation of North Korea. Steve Tsang, the head of the SOAS China Institute says that,“Irrational behaviour that is on display by Kim Jong Un, actually comes from the fact that about 10,000 different pieces of [North Korean] artillery which could lob shells into the vicinity of Seoul could cause huge damage”. “So Kim’s reasonable calculation is that there is not actually a lot that Trump can do about it and there is almost certainly nothing the Chinese will do about it in concrete terms.”

However, it may change since the logjam cannot continue and either the US will be forced to take action or China will be compelled by the US and its allies to take action against the North Korean regime.

President Barak Obama adopted a policy of strategic patience and wanted China to rein in the rogue state, however, that policy failed and Kim Jong Un took it as a window of opportunity to build its nuclear arsenal.

Compulsions and Options for China

North Korea is a buffer state for China and is a Chinese proxy that has kept US engaged in the region since the Korean War. Collapse of North Korea or unification of North and South Korea will position the US directly in the immediate neighbourhood of China and China would not like that to happen. As a consequence China would do everything possible to keep the US away from its territorial boundary even if it has to keep a rogue regime at its door steps in North Korea or replace it with a pro-Beijing regime. But if Kim Jong Un continues to threaten the US and its regional allies and maintain a threatening posture with nuclear arsenal, sooner or later the US would be compelled to take action against North Korea with or without the consent of China. Beijing is in a spot because they need North Korea to keep the US engaged at this juncture, but without crossing a red line and short of a military confrontation.

China does not want any instability that could drag it into a conflict while it is pursuing the BRI as its flagship strategic economic initiative, consolidation of its position in South China Sea and the ongoing issue with Japan over Senkaku Islands. Removal of the North Korean regime would consolidate the US position in the Northern Pacific region and will get rid of an irritant. But more important is the cost of a war in terms of collateral damage that has all the chances of going nuclear. In the event of conflict between the US and North Korea, China will have to deal with humanitarian disaster and fallout of the nuclear radiation.

Kim Jong’s claim to attack the US main land may not be true but has the capability to create unprecedented collateral damage to Japan, South Korea and US bases in Pacific Ocean with his artillery and stockpile of assorted conventional and nuclear missiles. Notwithstanding the above, China has limited options to act before the US can take action against North Korea. Kim Jong himself may be aware that China is becoming weary of his irrational behaviour and thus could sacrifice him for larger strategic gains. The options available to China are:-

•  Force Kim Jong Un to come to the negotiating table and force him suspend all provocative actions against US and its allies.

•  Impose economic sanctions, thereby threatening economic crippling of the North Korean Regime if North Korea fails to suspend provocative actions. Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert from Renmin University in Beijing says, “China has been pushed into a corner and has few options left.” He admits “tightened sanctions are the only feasible response with China to deter North Korea from using nuclear weapons”.

•  Enforce regime change with or without the assistance of the US with another set of pro-Beijing regime that is not irrational.

China has exercised restrain against North Korea because it is not a threat to China but an irritant that is causing some anxiety to the Xi Jinping government. Christopher Hill, an assistant Secretary of State under George W. Bush said that “China’s strategic goal is to frustrate the US and maintain a permanent division of the Korean peninsula.” Second, China is aware that considering the collateral damages that North Korea is capable of bringing down on the US and its allies, it may not be prudent for the US to take risk of attacking North Korea at this stage. The bottom line is losing North Korea at this juncture as an ally, the last thing that China would wish to happen. If  the US is able to enforce regime change and replace with it with a pro-US regime in North Korea it would be deemed as a victory for the US and a defeat for China. China would never like to have  anunified Korea aligned to the US on its border.

US Compulsions and Options

Inspite of the provocation and threats issued by North Korean regime, the US is working on war preventive strategy through Beijing, regional allies and even directly. The US can no more afford a strategy of restraint because that will allow North Korea to build capabilities that may threaten the US main land with credible nuclear capabilities.

USA will be compelled to act and decisively in the near future unless North Korea modifies its behaviour and destroys its nuclear arsenal. The US government is not inclined to allow a nuclear North Korea even if it agrees to cap the capabilities and stop further provocative actions. Under such circumstances Kim can restart its capability development once the dust settles down. The US wants to defang North Korea and close down all nuclear facilities so that the threat to the US and its allies is snuffed out once for all. The economic sanctions sponsored by UN and its allies have not worked in the absence of continued support from China and to some extent from Russia. The US allies are becoming edgy and anxious and want the nuclear blackmail by North Korea to end.

However, it is not known if Japan, South Korea and Philippines have given their approval to face the consequences of a potential war that may drag the North East Asia into conflict. Victor Cha director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, wrote in the Time, that, China has long been a free rider in negotiations, with little at stake in the outcome of the negotiations. He further writes that Washington should make it clear to Beijing that it will not re-enter a negotiation as long as China insists on maintaining at least 80% to 85% of North Korea’s trade.

Time for the US and China both is running out and both nations need to act and act decisively. Even the domestic population of the US will put state administration under pressure due to its inaction and inability to remove the threat once for all.  The options for the US are as under:-

•  Compel China to denuclearize North Korea to avoid direct military actions from the US.

•  Force China to impose complete economic sanctions and suspend crude oil supply to cripple North Korea if it does not modify its behaviour.

•  Enforce regime change by staginga coup/ elimination of Kim Jong Un through covert means and replace it with a pro-US regime and sea stage for unification of Korea subsequently.

•  Targeting nuclear facilities simultaneously and paralyzing command and control set up. Though it is not possible to eliminate the threat of retaliation in totality and in all probability North Korea will be able to breach the missile defence umbrella to attack US allies (South Korea and Japan with artillery and assorted missiles).

Military confrontation is fraught with dangers of a nuclear conflagration in the region. The US may have identified major nuclear sites but may not be sure if these are the ones that would get activated or there are few more that may get activated once awar breaks out. It is not possible with the current capabilities of ballistic missile defence to provide impenetrable umbrella against the nuclear and conventional missiles. Even if few missiles can reach the target, destruction could be unimaginable in South Korea and Japan; though Trump has made an assertion that the US is prepared and systems are loaded to deal with the North Korean nuclear provocation. Any failed attempt to eliminate Kim Jong Un can also trigger war, thus the US has to take measured steps to keep backup plans in place so that if one fails another should get operationalised.

Impact of War

Escalation of hostilities would create major security risks even to China where thousands of refugees would cross over to China. The bigger threat is desertion by military units in entirety into China with weapons and even with fissile material. That could cause instability even in main land China. East China Sea and Yellow Sea may become a no go zone for routine commercial activities and hurt economic interests of China, Japan, South Korea and North East Asian nations. There is a likelihood that Russia and China may also test their cyber, space and electronic capabilities since it will provide them a test bed to assess if they can counter US capabilities in a warlike situation.

The War with North Korea will determine if China will keep the US engaged through proxy or if the US will get access to Chinese land borders on Korean Peninsula. If China is able to manage the current crisis and ensure Kim Jong stays, it will be considered its victory and cold war in the Korean peninsula will continue. If the US is able to ensure unification of Korea or replace current regime with a pro-US regime it will be seen as victory for the US and defeat of China. No matter how this logjam ends it is certain that the conflict will have profound impact on strategic balance that is set to tilt either in favour of the US or China.

Another aspect of this standoff could be massive collateral damage and irrecoverable loss to the region and the parties to the conflict. China and even Russia could be dragged into the conflict through their proxy (North Korea). In the end one cannot overlook the fact China and the US are not enemies; they are competitors and on top of that they are one of the biggest business partners as well. There is a slim hope that the US may be able to force China to react to either discipline the errant North Korean leader or replace him with a regime that will be amenable to a denuclearised North Korea. One thing is sure – neither the US nor China can afford to keep the current regime in power and push the region into instability.

China must look at a scenario that if there is unified Korea there may be no need for the US to station their forces on Korean Peninsula. Thus it may be easy for China to deal with anunified Korea on social, cultural and more importantly in economic sphere to build a relation. The Chinese administration may already be working in this direction since it wants to foreclose all avenues of future interventions by the US in this region.

Courtesy: With permission reproduced from:

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Narender Kumar (Retd.)

Senior Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left