North Korea’s latest bluster about missiles and nuke tests will embarrass China, alarm South Korea and Japan, and generally contribute to enhanced cooperation among the Pacific Rim nations worried that China and its deranged ally are destabilizing the region. The North Koreans have made life easier for those in Japan who want to change the constitution and increase the defense budget, and they made it much easier for Japan and South Korea to overlook their own differences and tensions as they contemplate the rogue state in Pyongyang.
We don’t think much about the North Korea-China relationship, and that may be one reason the Norks seem so hard to understand. But brash moves by the North cause trouble for Beijing, and we should assume that part of what’s going on is an attempt by Pyongyang to prod its giant partner into giving it more aid or otherwise budging on bilateral issues. Do what we say or we’ll make your life a living hell, seems to be the message from Pyongyang to Beijing.
Although nobody in the U.S. really welcomes threats of nuclear war emanating from detestable pipsqueaks who starve kids to bolster their armies, looked at objectively, North Korea right now is more of an asset for America’s Asia policy than a problem. The DPRK costs China money and it drives China crazy and embarrasses it while reminding everyone else that close security relations with the United States are a good thing to have.
While the conventional wisdom says that the reunification of Korea would be a problem for China, potentially putting U.S. forces back on the Yalu River, the effect might actually be very different. Unification of Korea would enormously reduce South Korea’s economic capacity for a large defense budget and the population would be much too preoccupied by reconstruction to be interested in great power politics. U.S. forces would not move north of the old boundary and might eventually be asked to leave. South Korea’s current hostility to China (based on resentment at Beijing’s support for the North) would likely yield to the traditionally more friendly relations between the two, and the edgy rivalry and resentment felt toward Japan would grow.
America’s alliances in Asia would weaken, China would gain rather than lose a friend, and the politics in Japan would likely tilt against the pro-military types. In Europe, the end of Soviet support for satellite regimes meant the collapse of Soviet power and the triumph of the West; a North Korean collapse might have a very different result.