The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
China Cringes As North Korea Thumps Chest

With friends like North Korea, who needs enemies? That’s probably what China was thinking after yet another round of needless chest-thumping by its “ally” North Korea reminded all Asia why it might not be such a bad idea to keep the U.S. active and engaged in the region. The Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required) that

North Korea rebuked Japan for what it saw as a lack of respect over the death of Kim Jong Il and called Tokyo “the laughingstock of the world” because of its frequent changes of government—the latest indication Pyongyang’s new regime has no interest in improving relations with countries it considers foes.

Pyongyang’s state news agency used virtually identical language to its admonishment last week of South Korea. The comments show the regime now led by Kim Jong Il’s son Kim Jong Eun appears to be returning to its traditional pattern of lashing out at the countries it has long portrayed to its citizens as enemies: South Korea, Japan and the U.S.

As the head of state changes in “the world’s most stable” dictatorship, the regime wants everyone to be clear that nothing other than the first name of the ruling Kim will change. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies in the region are planning to step-up their security operations:

[T]he South Korean Ministry of National Defense said it would sign a new joint operational plan with the U.S., its chief ally, this month and increase the number of annual joint exercises.

China’s alliance with North Korea has always been a marriage of convenience, but the bride isn’t any better looking or sweeter tempered as the years go by. Unfortunately, China doesn’t have many options. If the Kim dynasty were to collapse, it would likely send millions of refuges across the Yalu River, creating widespread chaos in Manchuria. Nevertheless China now sees North Korea not so much as an asset but as a liability that must be tolerated.  China and North Korea may still be “closer than lips and teeth” in Chairman Mao’s old phrase, but the teeth are gritted and the jaw is clenched.

Published on January 5, 2012 5:47 pm
  • Otis McWrong

    China’s two main concerns with N. Korea are a flood of refugees if/when the North collapses (as WRM notes) and they do not want a US puppet on their immediate border. This is one reason a US pullout from S. Korea is not a bad idea (besides a) the cost, b) the fact the Korean conflict ended almost 60 years ago, and c) the fact the South is more than capable of defending herself) – China may be more open to a democratic Korea if it does not mean a US military presence immediately next door.

    Interestingly, one group not worried about N. Korea is the average “man on the street” in South Korea. They view the North as loud and obnoxious but not dangerous and I have had multiple Koreans ask me why the US pays so much attention to the North. Their main concern is millions of refugees in Seoul and claim that upon a North collapse, the S. Korean military would mobilize to keep the border sealed and the refugees up there. Seeing what it cost Germany to reunify scares them and they know the average N. Korean is WAAY worse than the average East German.

    If you’re ever flying into Seoul at night, try to plan to sit on whichever side of the plane will be facing North. Looking at the border that way is eerie – the South is well lit and indistinguishable from North America or Europe, while the North is tough to distinguish from the Yellow Sea – completely dark.

  • dave.s.

    I don’t know as ‘first name’ is the right way to talk about this.. ‘given name’? I think that’s better. The first name is, well, Kim.

  • Douglas

    Here’s my solution: China, the US and South Korea agree as follows: (1) they put together a fund, say a couple of billion dollars, to pension off the generals in North Korea, who hold all the power. The generals get to retire to Gstaad, with big bank accounts. (2) In return the generals agree to a merger of North Korea into South Korea. (3) The US withdraws all troops from South Korea, which becomes a neutral country. This is a win-win for everyone: Korea is united under a democratic, capitalist government; China doesn’t have to worry about US troops on its border, or about North Korean refugees flooding Manchuria, and it gets to improve relations with one of its most important trade partners, South Korea; and the US doesn’t have to worry about a North Korean invasion of South Korea.

  • LarryD

    The Korean War never ended, it’s just dropped to an extremely low level. Northe Korea continues to probe the South’s defenses, and has been caught digging tunnels under the DMZ four times, with another ten suspected.

    China’s problem is it’s so paranoid it can’t realize that if N Korea ceased to be provocation, US presence would decrease, not move forward.

  • Servius

    A pullout by the US would cause over 1 million casualties as the North would invade the South. The ‘best’ alternative is to wait for the North to collapse. (What can’t continue, won’t.) and help them rebuild and eventually maybe the two countries can unify on equal terms. 100 years from now maybe?

  • Robert Hanson

    “the South is more than capable of defending herself”

    Sure, Mr Chamberlain, peace in our time on the Korean peninsula is at hand. Except, of course, for over a million North Korean soldiers. South Korea can readily defend herself? Only if we give them tactical nuclear weapons to wipe out the Northern soldiers as they mass on the DMZ. With twice as many soldiers in the North as in the South, and the tendency of dictatorships to consider those troops expendable, and a large stockpile of chemical weapons, the North can easily overwhelm Seoul in a surprise attack, which is only 30 from the DMZ.

  • Robert Hanson

    Seoul is only 30 miles from the DMZ. The task for the South would be to stop 1.1 million soldiers from going a mere 30 miles.

  • David_Jay

    First name in Korea is the Family name. Jong Eun are the given names, he shares Kim with his father (Kim Jong Il) and grandfather(Kim Il Sung).

  • Frank

    Kim is the sur name of the Kim family. In korea the last name is first. If Kim Jong un moved to the US, we would call him Un Kim.

  • myrmecodon

    @douglas: The assimilation of millions of desperate NKs willing to work for starvation wages would instantly beggar the South Korean economy and government. They will never agree to it.

  • Noah Nehm

    I don’t think China thinks of North Korea as a liability at all. Countries like China and Russia use rogue states like North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela to carry out their really nasty business. And, in any negotiations involving regional issues, it gives them an edge: “We’d love to help you, but keeping North Korea is under control is taking up all our energy.”

  • BlogDog

    [Heck}. The Chinese didn't want the Norks to start the war back in the 50s. Nice analysis but nothing new, really.
    I don't mean to disparage - what you wrote very much needs to be written.

  • oldsalt

    I think you are underestimating North Korea’s value to China.

    That nation allows China to have plausible deniability to the US, Japan and others of its nuclear support for what we call terrorist regimes. Thru North Korea, Chinese weapons and technology have flowed to Pakistan, Iran and quite possible other Middle Eastern countries. China has always claimed it didn’t do it and then claimed it has so little control over the Norks.

  • Andrew Kleit

    I fear Mr. Mead has missed the point. For China, North Korea is the child gone bad. China saved North Korea in the Korean war China is not happy about the behavior, but they cannot renounce their child.

  • Anthony

    South Korea is a modern, prosperous democratic country of about 45 million well fed citizens.

    North Korea is the type of country Stalin only dreamed about creating with about 1/2 the population, 1/12 the GDP and most living on tree bark.

    There are about 25,000 US troops in South Korea now.

    If war comes, most of the fighting will be by South Korean troops anyway. South Korea is their home.

    WHY IS ANY OF THIS OUR PROBLEM?

    Given the disparities of wealth, freedom and population, if South Korea cannot defend itself it is not worth defending.

    Take our troops home now and let the Koreans worry about Korea.

  • http://www.federaleagent86.blogspot.com Federale

    China’s alliance with NK is not a matter of convenience, but one of long historical significance. Korea has always been the chief tributary to Imperial China and that relationship, the cultural dominance, the subservience of the Korean regime, is a theme of the relationship between the two.

    China has a deep desire to control Korea. Independence or alliance by Korea with a foreign power is seen as a threat. So it is axiomatic that China will always support the crazies of NK so long as they are isolated from the rest of the world and do China’s bidding.

  • http://rantburg.com Steve White

    May I suggest that many examining the relationship between China and North Korea have it wrong.

    Here is my suggestion: North Korea is China’s lapdog. It does exactly what China wants it to do, and nothing more.

    Kim I, Kim II and now Kim III (‘Pudgy’) have pursued nuclear weapons because China wants them to do so. China does not want its fingerprints on a Nork bomb and therefore won’t ‘give’ the Norks the plans and enriched uranium, but they will let the North pursue the bomb, and missiles to deliver a bomb. Why? It suits China’s interests, which is to keep the U.S. tied down, Japan uneasy, and the South wary.

    Likewise, North Korea’s activities in drug running, counterfeiting U.S. currency, attempts to subvert South Korea, and arms sales (and perhaps nuclear expertise) to other countries suits China, and for the same reasons. It is a low cost way for China to pressure the U.S. and Japan and to extend their own influence in the western Pacific.

    China does this with other countries: Burma is a similar cats-paw for China.

    Seen in this context, North Korea’s behavior is completely understandable. It is also understandable why America, from Bush I to Clinton to Bush II to Obama, have failed to stop North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons and their destabilizing activities: we haven’t been talking to the right people.

    Some suggest that if we agree to leave South Korea that this in turn would ‘ease’ China’s ‘concerns’. I suggest that if we withdrew, China would say ‘thank you very much’ and then step up the pressure elsewhere hoping to gain another concession from us.

    The solution is simple, though implementation is not: we have to make North Korea a cross for China to bear. We have to make the costs of supporting North Korea exceed the benefits that accrue to China. Only then will China pull its support for the Kim dynasty.

    How to do that? My way of doing it would be perhaps clumsy but effective. I would start dropping hints about helping Taiwan re-arm, about looking the other way if Japan were to consider building nuclear weapons, and about allowing the South Koreans to have long-range missiles and attack aircraft. I would (after getting our own financial house in order of course) start dropping hints about limiting China’s access to US markets. I would encourage China’s fears about being encircled by approaching Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka about military cooperation, and I’d be selling India high-tech military equipment.

    And at some point, I’d have a summit meeting with China’s leader and explain (quietly) how all this gets better if they agree to cut the Norks loose.

    Being nice doesn’t work in international politics, particularly when one is dealing with thugs. Thugs understand pressure. The US is not unarmed when it comes to applying pressure, just squeamish.

  • Ken

    One reason China wants to prevent Korea from being unified is that a unified Korea might start to assert its territorial claims to the Koguryo area of Manchuria.
    Americans should always keep in mind how much the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese mutually HATE each other. It goes beyond ideology or even reason. The entire area will just explode one day over the unresolved grievances and territorial claims each has. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by Korea is something that will (literally) blow up in China’s face one day. Ask any South Korean what they think about the North’s nukes and they will say its not a problem, since they will eventually become THEIR nukes…

  • ed

    The US is not in SK to prevent the Norks from invading. They are there to prevent the Chinese from overrunning the entire peninsula, which they would do in the blink of an eye if the US withdrew.

  • mac

    Ken is exactly right. The South Koreans, at least, hold the Chinese in deep contempt. Anecdote: I was once in an “intercultural communications” course in Korea. The instructor was showing pictures of national flags and asking what came to mind when they saw them. The PRC flag came up. A Korean in the class loudly said, “Chinese are dirty and lazy!” The Westerners all slowly turned to look at the speaker in stunned silence. Meanwhile, the Koreans all nodded their heads in agreement with his statement.

    Side note: South Korea is now a rich nation. They can defend themselves. The U.S. does not need to have troops in Korea and should long since have pulled them all out.

  • RayJ

    Pulling out of South Korea would mean that it would have to acquire nuclear weapons to defend itself for reasons already mentioned in the comments.
    I don’t have a problem with that.
    But do realize that the price of keeping South Korea nonnuclear is our presence there.

  • J Reece

    What [tauroscatalogical reference]! China isn’t the least worried about the Norks, given that Chinese aid is the only reason it hasn’t completely starved.

    The ChiCom leadership is simply maintaining North Korea as a proxy for anti-US, anti-Japan, anti-Taiwan military aggression. Nothing more.

  • http://rantburg.com Steve White

    Mac: there is an anecdote that says that from the end of the Korean war to about 1990, the US military was in Korea to protect the South from the North. After that time, they were there to protect the North from the South.

    However, pulling our forces from Korea now sends the wrong signal to North Korea’s leash-holder, China. It would be seen as appeasement and kowtowing. We shouldn’t do that.

    However, since we all agree South Korea is a rich nation, they should go on a military shopping spree. Long range missiles that could hit Beijing would be nice, not that the Koreans would ever attack the dirty, lazy Chinese…

  • http://www.liberalcapitalist.com peter jackson

    We have a functioning historical example of how to roll communist dictatorships without firing a shot. I like to call it “emptying.” Pay the Chinese (in gold if necessary) to throw open their borders with North Korea and help process repatriation to the south. Japan can kick in too. The last one out of North Korea can turn off the lights. Oh wait, there are no lights…

  • BigSoph

    The solution to the NorK problem was well articulated by Rudyard Kipling

    We will never pay anyone the Danegeld
    No matter how trifling the cost
    For the end of that game is oppression and shame
    And the nation that plays it is lost!

    Although Obama seems to favour a policy of constructive engagement of the Dane and a willingness to sit down and work out a fair and equitable payment plan!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003405421295 Pengcheng

    “the real Nth Korea traeht” is in connection with China, I believe…. However the USA (Obama) may strive for peace ALSO.