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Things get interesting on the Korean peninsula

For several days now, there has been speculation that North Korea is about to test one of the nuclear devices it claims to possess. This Guardian article states that

satellites have tracked a special North Korean train, the usual form of transport for Mr Kim, entering Chinese territory.

It does not surprise me at all that China would expeditiously summon Kim in such circumstances; China has the most to lose if North Korea tests a nuclear device.

In many ways, China has profited handsomely from its enduring ‘special relationship’ with North Korea; Beijing’s rapprochement with the West meant it was an ideal conduit between the US and the so-called Hermit Kingdom. Consequently, China has acquired a fair slice of diplomatic prestige from its mediating role in such a critical conflict. However, this cachet is predicated on the assumption that China has a powerful hand in North Korea’s internal affairs – a reasonable assumption, considering North Korea’s reliance on Chinese energy.

However, if Kim Jong-il goes against the express wishes of his Chinese patrons and conducts a nuclear weapons trial, Chinese diplomatic credibility will take a severe blow. This would be bad enough for a leadership obsessed with symbolism. For Chinese planners, an even more serious consequence of North Korea exploding an atomic device would be the reaction of its neighbours.

A probable response to such a grave threat would be to increase military spending markedly. If the threat of a conventional arms race in the region is enough to keep Chinese strategists awake at night, consider the most distasteful consequence of such noisy bellicosity; both Japan and South Korea operate a number of nuclear power stations. They too might decide to go nuclear. Certainly Japan has the materials and technical know-how to assemble a nuclear weapon quickly. It may even possess such devices now, on the (very) quiet. China would be aghast at any new declared nuclear states in the region – such entities would dilute China’s hard-power influence in the region considerably. To say that it is in China’s interest that her technically capable neighbours do not reach their full military potential is extreme understatement.

In light of the way the situation is unfolding over the longer term, it looks as though the American effort to involve China so deeply in the conflict resolution process on the Korean peninsula was a masterstroke. Pyongyang can sabre-rattle all it likes; Chinese interests are the best insurance against Kim Jong-il’s rash impulses becoming outright belligerence. Even if Chinese influence in Pyongyang proves to be less convincing than widely thought, the probable result of this will be Western allies in the region growing militarily stronger to deter a North Korean attack. From an American perspective, this has two attractive benefits. Firstly, it can afford to militarily disengage from the region somewhat, as its allies take up the slack. Secondly, these allies will grow militarily stronger relative to Chinese military power. The latter consequence becomes a useful hedge if China develops into a strategic rival in the future. Chinese involvement in this affair is increasingly looking like a win-any-which-way for the Americans, regardless of the outcome – barring North Korea actually bombing someone, that is.

28 comments to Things get interesting on the Korean peninsula

  • mrp

    Consequently, China has acquired a fair slice of diplomatic prestige from its mediating role in such a critical conflict. However, this cachet is predicated on the assumption that China has a powerful hand in North Korea’s internal affairs – a reasonable assumption, considering North Korea’s reliance on Chinese energy.

    Yes, but no mention of the possibility that the ChiComs might approve and quietly support such an event?

  • There is no mention of the possibility you float, because it is irrational. Why would they “approve and quietly support such an event”? They have nothing to gain and a lot to lose from North Korea forcing its way into the nuclear club, for the reasons stated in the article.

  • michael farris

    Perhaps the ever- brave dear leader Kim just wants to be a safe distance away when the bomb goes off? Perhaps he doesn’t trust NKorean technology anymore than anyone else?

  • It would be totally irrational for China to support a Norc nuclear test, but since when have governments, above all Communist ones, been reliably rational ? China may let this go ahead, simply to piss off the US and Japan.

    Remember when the EU was going to lift the weapons embargo on the PRC? They went ahead and made some extremely belligerent noises that caused the EU to put the whole idea into the deep freeze. Lets not overestimate their ability to make wise choices.

  • mrp

    It is widely assumed that the North Koreans have built a number of nuclear weapons, and that they have had them for a number of years. In 1998, the Norks launched a multi-staged ballistic missile which flew over Japan. They have recently conducted extensive tests of (relatively) short-ranged missiles, and, at the same time, launched an IRBM that had a calculated flight path terminating in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor. And only now the PRC is supposedly concerned about about NK intransigence?

    Frankly, with the near-total control of NK access to energy and food supplies, I think the simplest explanation is that the PRC fully approves and assists the NK in its strategic endeavors.

    That is hardly irrational.

  • cryptononcommie

    Not much can be done about North Korea now that they have been allowed to go nuclear; however, North Korea should serve as a lesson regarding the quality of “US Intelligence,” and the ability of negotiations and “incentives” to prevent a rogue-state from going nuclear (of course, as I outlined in my past posts, just as Westerners are incapable of learing from the history of the various Islamic conquests, they are even incapable of learing from history that occured only a few years ago). When North Korea was declared nuclear, heads should have rolled all over the West, and cries of “never again” should have been heard on every Western street. Instead, you have learned nothing (just as you learned nothing from the various Islamic/Jihadi conquests of yore). Today, you are engaging in very much of the same with Iran, while your incompetent intelligence agencies and apparatchiks sit by complacently asuming that there is still time (just as they did with the DPRK). I hope you morons enjoy the age of hyperproliferation (you deserve it; I, obviously, do not, but shall have to suffer the collective punishment).
    US (and coaltition) Wankers out of Iraq… into Iran now (while there is still time)!

  • I agree with James. Given the current makeup of the Japanese government if the Norks do test a nuke Japan is highly likely to go nuclear.

    Informed opinion reckons on about 6 months for a workable bomb (probably using plutonium which they have LOTS of) including strapping it onto a missile seeing as they already have a space program.

    This may not be totally accurate but it seems likely to be close enough and well enough known that the Chinese are going to assume that it is true. Unless China plans on invading Japan in less than 6 months it will have a nuclear armed neighbour with whom it has a lot of territorial disputes (not to mention Yasukuni) and one that seems to maintain fraternal ties with the “not a country” of Taiwan. Given that China has mentioned N Korea as some sort of possible quid pro quo for Taiwan in the past it would make sense for the Japanese to play them back in the same coin

  • cryptononcommie

    Hmmm. My original post appears to have been smitten, so here is a slighlty modified version thereof:

    Not much can be done about North Korea now that they have been allowed to go nuclear; however, North Korea should serve as a lesson regarding the quality of “US Intelligence,” and the ability of negotiations and “incentives” to prevent a rogue-state from going nuclear (of course, as I outlined in my past posts, just as Westerners are incapable of learing from the history of the various Islamic conquests, they are even incapable of learing from history that occured only a few years ago). When North Korea was declared nuclear, heads should have rolled all over the West, and cries of “never again” should have been heard on every Western street. Instead, the West has learned nothing (just as they learned nothing from the various Islamic/Jihadi conquests of yore). Today, the West is engaging in very much of the same with Iran, while their incompetent intelligence agencies and apparatchiks sit by complacently asuming that there is still time (just as they did with the DPRK). I hope the West enjoy the age of hyperproliferation (they deserve it through their blatant display of incompetence; I, obviously, do not, but shall have to suffer the collective punishment).
    US (and coaltition) soldiers out of Iraq… into Iran now (while there is still time)!

  • Nick M

    I’d rather see the Norks starved into submission. I’d rather they were reduced to eating their children’s feet than they get a nuke.

    Perhaps then Mr Armanidinnerjacket in Iran might think twice. Of course he might not, and just nibble on a toe…

  • veryretired

    Most people in the West are still unaware of, or in denial about, the international nature of the threat facing them. Partially due to media incompetence, the long standing relationship between the NK and Iran has been given little publicity, and the maze of financial and technology transfers among various anti-western actors is largely unexplored.

    Since its inception, the regime in NK has been a wholly owned subsidiary of whichever marxist sugar daddy would support it. The idea that it has an independent foriegn policy is just as naive as believing that Hezbollah decides what to do and then informs Iran of the decision.

    They are proxies, similar in purpose, to antagonize the US in particular, and the West in general, and similar also in the mistake they lead some to make, that they have an existence independently of their use to their masters.

    The reason the US insists that China be involved in any dealings with NK is that there is no NK without Chinese support and approval. The reason it is a mistake to deal with NK one on one is the same reason it is foolish to argue with a ventriliquist’s dummy—there’s nobody there, just some wood and a few levers.

    There used to be dozens of these supposedly indigenous, independent, spontaneously belligerent, revolutionary groups all over the world. Right after the Soviets imploded, almost all of them mysteriously folded up.

    When the SU’s archives were examined, the independent groups were found to be controlled, funded, and trained by the SU, or its subordinates like Cuba or East Germany. The few that survive are drug gangs or mafia-type protection rackets now.

    The future course of the NK problem will be decided upon in Peking, just as the future actions of Hez will be decided upon by its masters in Tehran.

    But the west, as long as it goes along with the charade that these entities are actually who they claim to be, instead of the fronts they actually are, will be as clumsy and ineffective as they have been in the past.

    When you punch a puppet, all you do is hurt your hand on the wooden head. Punch the ventriliquist. He can’t do his act as well with blood and teeth in his mouth.

    All right? S’all right.

  • It would be totally irrational for China to support a Norc nuclear test, but since when have governments, above all Communist ones, been reliably rational?

    Nearly always. As liberals, we may find government objectives ideologically ugly, but that does not mean these objectives – as well as action taken to accomplish them – are irrational. Government action is nearly always rational. It’s quite likely NK is pursuing a perfectly rational foreign and military policy at present – it could well be engaging in brinkmanship in an attempt to extract as many concessions out of the rest of the world as possible. Of course, this strategy may (I suspect probably will) fail them, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrational.

    Frankly, with the near-total control of NK access to energy and food supplies, I think the simplest explanation is that the PRC fully approves and assists the NK in its strategic endeavors.

    Well, it’s certainly a simplistic explanation. And I notice you give no reason why China would support a country like NK acting in a way that blatantly runs contrary to China’s national interest.

    And only now the PRC is supposedly concerned about about NK intransigence?

    No, I think the PRC has been deeply concerned about it for a number of years. And I think you miss the bigger picture. Recall that it wasn’t all that long ago when Beijing would trumpet the fact that NK and China were “as close as lips and teeth”. NK is certainly falling out of favour in Beijing these days, however there is a particularly nationalistic demographic in China that could well react negatively if China aligns itself too closely with the USA. It’s important to remember that since the demise of central economic planning and the rise of the market, the Chinese Communists have experienced something of an existential crisis. In place of the tenets of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought, today’s communists provide justification for their continued rule by bringing prosperity to the people and stoking nationalistic tempers. If China threw North Korea to the dogs – as the US would so love them to do – imagine how that would look to the increasingly influential and chauvinistic Chinese nationalists. Can you say “American stooge”? Hence, China has to ration its public disapproval carefully when it comes to North Korea. Think of parents of an increasingly wayward teenager. Years ago, the parents bragged insufferably about their offspring to their friends and rivals. Now that he’s turning into a little shit, publicly they’re quite reticent about it because they know they’ll look more than a little silly in light of their earlier statements. Behind closed doors, however… For example, I am absolutely certain that NK came in for a right royal behind-the-scenes bollocking from China due to its missile test earlier this year.

    cryptononcommie: you have a rather bizarre take on history, as evidenced by this thread. Incidentally, I responded to you (the last comment on the thread) but you didn’t reply. Where are you from? I take it you’re not from the West. Why aren’t your people doing anything about the problems you mention? Why is it all up to us Westerners? Also, it’s important to note that NK is NOT a verified nuclear weapons-equipped actor. It may well hold nuclear weapons, but it has never tested one and we only have the North Koreans’ word that they do possess such weapons. There’s at least an even chance that they’re bluffing.

  • There is a *much* better than even chance that the Norks are bluffing: it is in their interest to conduct such a test and demonstrate that they are weaponized.

    I agree that this is not in China’s interests, and that the PLA would like to avoid a further hardening of northern Asia.

  • mrp

    Well, it’s certainly a simplistic explanation. And I notice you give no reason why China would support a country like NK acting in a way that blatantly runs contrary to China’s national interest.

    I don’t pretend to know what the members of the PRC’s Politburo perceive to be their country’s “national interest”.

    One might suspect that China’s policy of “containment through surrogates” might be in play. Certainly the Chinese have been up to their eyeballs in the nuclear proliferation game; their dealings with the Libyan and Iranian governments comes to mind. Not to mention the intense Chinese involvement with the notrious AQ Khan network. So, somehow, Chinese assistance with the North Korean nuclear program is out of the question? Now who’s being “simplistic”?

  • One might suspect that China’s policy of “containment through surrogates” might be in play.

    If that’s their strategy, they have a particularly weak hand and can expect a bullet-ridden foot into the bargain. The outcome of following that strategy is so obviously detrimental to Chinese interests that I do not believe for one second that they are pursuing such a strategy.

    their dealings with the Libyan and Iranian governments comes to mind.

    I think that might have more to do with a quid-pro-quo over energy supplies than some sinister and (as I keep pointing out, wholly irrational) Chinese desire to arm the renegade states of the world with nuclear weapons.

    Not to mention the intense Chinese involvement with the notrious AQ Khan network.

    Intense? Erring on the side of hyperbole there, wouldn’t you say?

    So, somehow, Chinese assistance with the North Korean nuclear program is out of the question?

    They may have unwittingly assisted this programme, certainly. Allowing Pakistani military aircraft (presumably loaded with centrifuges and the like) to fly through Chinese airspace is an example of this. However, on reflection, I believe the Chinese would much prefer NK not to have a nuclear capacity, for the same reason the Soviets didn’t want the Chinese to develop a nuclear weapons programme. More importantly, the regional military buildup that a nuclear-armed NK would provoke is something that China would like to avoid at all costs, for painfully obvious reasons. Japan still has the capacity to comprehensively outspend China, and will be able to do so for many years.

    Your contention that China is deeply and currently complicit in NK’s developing nuclear programme is based around some circumstantial evidence and a belief that the Chinese administration is so evil that it will ignore its own interests to create some 007-esque superbaddie state for the sheer hell of it. Time to cut through the hysteria and handwringing over China and start analysing the situation with some clarity.

  • If the Chinese wanted the NKs to have nuclear weapons, they could simply give them some, with their own technicians. That they haven’t done so would appear to be evidence that they don’t think that situation is necessary or in their best interest. The trip by Kim looks a lot like trips by the heads of numerous vassal states to the court of the emperor over the last few millennia, to be advised and corrected. Many of these trips were one-way.

  • mrp

    If the Chinese wanted the NKs to have nuclear weapons, they could simply give them some, with their own technicians

    Interesting point. When the US sold Polaris and Trident subs to the UK, did the British also purchase the nuclear warheads, or did they install their own?

  • Dirk

    “Consequently, China has acquired a fair slice of diplomatic prestige from its mediating role in such a critical conflict. However, this cachet is predicated on the assumption that China has a powerful hand in North Korea’s internal affairs – a reasonable assumption, considering North Korea’s reliance on Chinese energy.”

    PRK’s prevoius history does not seem to bear this logic out. ‘Great Leader’ Kim il Sung unleashed his Peoples Army’s in 1950 and very nearly won the whole ball game. Stalin thought he was pulling the ‘Great Leader’ was following his lead as the Soviet Union controlled the purse strings. Stalin told the ‘Great Leader’, no war. Kim Il Sung did it anyways. ‘Little Kim’s’ greatest threat, and most logical move, would be to hand off untraceable fissle material to OBL or other rogue terror groups. Such an attack would cripple Western nations economy’s, and prove to be the ultimate asymetrical nightmare. Those who think Iran is the big problem with enrichment are IMHO are not thinking things through; But what do I know about war…..LOL

  • ‘Great Leader’ Kim il Sung unleashed his Peoples Army’s in 1950 and very nearly won the whole ball game.

    The ballgame in 1950 is rather different to that in 2006.

    ‘Little Kim’s’ greatest threat, and most logical move, would be to hand off untraceable fissle material to OBL or other rogue terror groups.

    Sounds like the plot of a 70s airport novel. There are that many complicating factors, I barely know where to start. But how about here…

    untraceable fissle material

    Is there such a thing? And what will OBL and co do with fissile material, apart from making crude (and easily detected) dirty bombs from it?

    Those who think Iran is the big problem with enrichment are IMHO are not thinking things through

    Okay, let’s think things through. On one hand, we have Iran, a regional great power with a strong and continuous revenue stream; not particularly beholden to any one state for its continuing existence. Contrast with NK, an isolated “hermit kingdom” with a particularly weak revenue stream and very much beholden to a regional superpower (China, a nation that could do without reminders of its own ugly cult of personality-embued past like that seen in NK) for the basic necessities of existence. Granted, NK might have a head-start in the race. However, which state represents a greater proliferation threat in the longer term?

    But what do I know about war?

    Well, you’re telling the story.

  • dirk

    “Okay, let’s think things through. On one hand, we have Iran, a regional great power with a strong and continuous revenue stream; not particularly beholden to any one state for its continuing existence. Contrast with NK, an isolated “hermit kingdom” with a particularly weak revenue stream and very much beholden to a regional superpower … However, which state represents a greater proliferation threat in the longer term?”

    “The “Hermit Kingdom” gee sounds like all sack cloth and ashes….Gee, maybe you need to go there to ‘find’ yourself. I’m sure the ‘Little Great Leader’ would love to show you his collection of 70′s Airport movies, then it’s off to camp, Oh the Joy!…… If you need to believe Iran is the greater proliferation threat please do so; but before you convince us all of the error our ways think through the actions our partner the the ‘War on Terror’, Pakistan. I believe the mushroom cloud genie is already out of the bottle, let out by the current President and ISI. In the last year alone there was four attempts on his life. Nobody said raised a fuss about this atomic mess, why because he was ‘our boy’? Well Saddam was ‘our boy’ at one time,see 80-89 Iran/Iraq war, and look at the shameful way we treated him. Gave him the means to make and use WMD on the Iranians, and the Kurds. Helped him with state of the art intelligence our other allies pitched in as well, He still lost the war. The ‘Butcher of Bagdad’….LOL

  • Gee. Are you intending to rebut my earlier contentions with hard facts relevant to the questions at hand, or are you just going to continue on with your rambling, unrelated conjecture?

  • Anyway, on a point of your irrelevance; Saddam was never “our boy” – on the contrary, he spent most of his reign aligned to the Soviets. He was tactically supported by the US when it looked as though Iran was getting the upper hand in the Iran-Iraq war.

    There’s a world of difference.

  • Dirk

    James here are the facts reqarding the West’s relationship and WMD arming of ‘our boy’ Saddam. Pretty ugly but sobering read(100,000 Iranian deaths due to WMD supplied by….. Should you need facts regarding Pakistan and the ISI’s role in the spread of nuclear Jihad feel free to ask
    Cheers Dirk
    http://www.iranchamber.com/history/articles/arming_iraq.php

  • Dirk,

    Still don’t agree – the USA scaled back its research into chemical and biological weaponry in the late 70s/early 80s, although the Soviet Union continued their efforts in this department (and consequently became significantly more advanced in the discipline) until the communist superpower collapsed. Remember that unidentified gas that the Russians used against the Chechen rebels in the Moscow theatre a few years ago? It was a product of this research – and that’s why no one in the West knew what the hell it was. I find it much more plausible that the Soviets, with their considerably more advanced chemical and biological weapons, assisted the Iraqis in their chemical and biological WMD development and deployment, considering it was a Soviet specialty area. And that Iran Chamber link – I think it naive in the extreme to describe its version of events as “the facts”, considering that Iran Chamber appears to be an Iranian propaganda portal. Regarding the article you specify, its unverifiable references aren’t convincing in the slightest. You really should be a little more discriminating in your Googling.

    Should you need facts regarding Pakistan and the ISI’s role in the spread of nuclear Jihad feel free to ask

    Point one – this is not the slightest bit relevant to the topic at hand. Point two – having seen what you pass off as “facts”, I think I’ll decline. By the way, that whole AQ Khan thing is kinda old news.

    Okay, we’ve spent too much time discussing tangential issues. Let’s shift this discussion back to the issues at hand – that is North Korea and Iran, not Iraq and not Pakistan. How about responding to my post left on the 3rd of September at 3.21pm?

  • Dirk

    James,
    Your treading on thin ice calling my Googling into question….LOL. If the Iran Chamber link didn’t work for you then here are secret documents FOIed from the White House during the Regan/Bush years from the Archives stored in Georgetown University. It would seem impossible for anyone to dispute these facts but I have been wrong before :{> Have a good read and let me know if you learned anything new. After you admit my facts regarding the Saddan/Regan Bush ‘old boy connection’ are true, I promise I’ll be good….
    Cheers,
    Dirk

    http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/

  • Dirk

    This is a very interesting article that goes right to the heart of my opinion of North Korea’s point of view. Note Dr. Pinkston’s assessment of the China card…and check out his Bio while your at it. Note what he has to say about North Korea passing WMD to rogue States/groups.
    Cheers,
    Dirk

    http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/other/pinkston_050425.htm

  • Nope. I’m not wearing that. Plonking a link down and saying “there, I’m right, read this” is a terribly lazy way to debate, and I won’t put up with it. YOU show me PRECISELY in that large document (and not in the body of the text – in the .pdf documents it links to as supposed irrefutable evidence) the parts that support your case. It’s not my job to trawl through your sources to prove you right. I did, however, have a quick glance, and I don’t see much evidence in the declassified documents of Saddam as “our boy”. In fact, the US govt documents give more weight to my analysis of America’s position on the Iran-Iraq war; America generally helped out whichever side was losing.

    This is a very interesting article that goes right to the heart of my opinion

    Okay, well your opinion expressed here on the North Korean issue has run to

    PRK’s prevoius history does not seem to bear this logic [that NK will act against the wishes and interests of its benefactor] out

    and you support this by citing an unverified example that took place over 50 years ago AND

    Those who think Iran is the big problem with enrichment are IMHO are not thinking things through

    whilst remaining reticent on why this is so. I don’t see how the article you’ve provided adds anything more to the negligible amount of support you’ve offered to back up your claims thus far.

    It’s about time you started debating properly. The methods you’ve employed here are distinctly shabby, and deeply unconvincing.

  • dirk

    “It’s about time you started debating properly. The methods you’ve employed here are distinctly shabby, and deeply unconvincing.”

    James,
    Could you define “debating properly for the audience” ? “Distinctly shabby and deeply unconvincing” I would guess this could be construed as an personal insult directed at me. Personal attacks in my world view are not ‘proper debate’, so I’ll not go there with you. Your entitled to your world view, but expect that other world views might be different in this forum of ideas. I didn’t take your last paragraph personal, but I don’t think you did yourself any credit.
    Cheers Mate,
    Dirk

  • That may be so, Dirk. However, my patience is running out. I’m happy to debate this issue with you, however I’ll only do so if you respond in good faith. This means

    a) actually presenting an argument – with a hypothesis and reasoning – rather than a bold assertion supported only by a bunch of uncontextualised references and conjecture.

    b) not engaging in bait-and-switch tactics, nor attacking strawmen and passing that off as one’s argument. Those who shift the goalposts mid-argument irritate me somewhat, which I why I got a little peeved when you went off on your Iraq tangent.

    Perhaps the irritation I displayed did me little credit, but your inclination to indulge in the rhetorical sins mentioned above hardly casts you in a favourable light, either. So if you’d like to start again, so will I. Perhaps with the substantive points I raised in the comment I left immediately prior to this one.