2003 August 13 Wednesday
China And South Korea Enable North Korean Nuclear Program

Peter Huessy says China has the power to stop North Korean nuclear weapons development.

For example, Joe Cirincione at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace charged that the combination of U.S. missile defenses and nuclear forces—“first the shield, then the sword”-- was undermining China’s deterrent, though it remains unclear what it is China was deterring the U.S. from doing. More likely, the PRC is concerned the U.S. is more likely to come to the defense of its allies in the region if we maintain both a missile defense and a nuclear deterrent, rather than a nuclear deterrent alone. Failing to deter potential Chinese aggression would be an open invitation to further military adventures, certainly not a sensible U.S. policy to follow.

The Bush Administration is thus pushing the PRC to make a choice between continuing its proliferation policies and finally shaping up. In my view, the Chinese communists in Beijing have all the power they need to stop not only the missile deployments and sales of the Kim Jong-Il government, but its nuclear programs as well. The key is what future the Chinese government officials now with the upper hand in Beijing decide: to pursue a China that fully integrates with the development of the Pacific region, its investment, trade and growth, or a China that seeks hegemonic control over the Pacific and its future.

There is debate about the extent of China's influence over North Korea. But China's aid to North Korea in the form of fuel and food is essential for the survival of the Pyongyang regime. Therefore, North Korea's continued development of nuclear weapons is possible because China allows it to happen. The Chinese clearly place a higher priority on the survival of the Pyongyang regime than they do on stopping its nuclear weapons development effort.

There are only about 3 possible ways to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons:

  • The US invades and overthrows the regime.
  • The US smuggles in large numbers of radios and books and reaches the North Korean people with a great deal of information about the rest of the world and this inspires the North Korean people to rise up and overthrow their government.
  • China cuts off aid to North Korea and joins with the US and its allies to enforce sanctions. The Pyongyang regime falls.

The Bush Administration doesn't appear to be willing to do a military build-up for a war. The US military is rather overstretched at this point anyhow and Congress would have to fund a military build up to make an attack practical. This seems unlikely.

An internal revolt seems unlikely unless some part of the military carries out a coup. Internal revolts against highly tyrannical regimes which still have effective and vigorous mechanisms of repression are rare. The state of mind of the officers in the North Korean military is the biggest wildcard in this scenario. Possibly a US covert operation could reach them with enough information and offers of substantial bribes to sway some loyalties. But I think this unlikely.

China is obviously unwilling to cut off aid. The Bush Administration seems unwilling to criticise the Chinese for failing to do so.

It is possible that the next round of negotiations will build up support among US allies for further cuts in aid and trade with North Korea. Even if US allies came to totally agree with the US on this point that would still leave non-allies South Korea and China supporting North Korea. As Incestuous Amplifier Kevin points out, China and South Korea are going to stick with North Korea come what may.

I support a hard negotiating line in order to flesh out a failure earlier rather than later, but I think the hawks in the Pentagon are equally wild-eyed optimists if they believe they'll ever succeed in rallying support from other countries for further pressure. Once negotiations begin, the North Koreans have to be smart enough to know that as long as they even remain at the table -- regardless of what they're saying or how much they're cooperating -- South Korea, China, and Russia will claim that the process is working. Germany, France, and Russia did the same thing with inspections in Iraq, and Iraq bought itself an extra year by playing the G/F/R against the US and Britain. North Korea could easily buy itself 3-4 years considering the fact that the potential costs of a war are exponentially higher.

You can follow the news from the Korean peninsula from day to day but keep in mind that no matter how much seems to be happening diplomatically at any point and no matter how hopeful various talking heads are of reaching a peaceful solution major changes would have to happen in the positions of both the Chinese and South Koreans for North Korea's nuclear program to be stopped at some point short of war. I think that unlikely and I'm betting on North Korea becoming a substantial nuclear power.

Update: Also see Marmot Robert Kohler's critique of a Korea Times op-ed by Tom Plate:

And Tom, you seem to have made a couple of slight typos there - concerning China, you wrote that its "cooperation with South Korea and the United States on the Korean issue has become dramatically helpful," when you should have written, "cooperation with South Korea against the United States on the Korean issue has become dramatically unhelpful." If either the Chinese or the South Koreans had wanted to nip this problem in the bud, they could have done so. But the Chinese would rather see their influence in the region grow while at the same time forcing the United States (its greatest competitor) to unilaterally shoulder the diplomatic and financial costs of a "negotiated solution," and the last two South Korean presidential administrations have been much more concerned with "inter-Korean detente" and arranging corrupt business deals in the North than with the possibility of a North Korean nuclear device going off in LA or New York. To the extent that Beijing and Seoul have cooperated at all, they have done so out of fear that the US might do something "drastic"; once we take that "drastic" option off the table - as preferred by Seoul, Beijing, and Tom Plate - the Chinese and South Koreans will no longer have any interest at all to work with Washington, and they'll go back to simply trying to bend the Americans over..

It is, at best, naive to refer to either South Korea or China as a friend or ally.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 August 13 03:17 PM  Korea

Ed McPartlin said at August 19, 2003 6:28 AM:

Prior to the 2001 announcement of its decision for the speedy deployment of the U.S. missile defense shield, China had 26 ICBMs in hard silos. After the announcement of the missile shield China began to undertake the production of 1000 mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles which will be operational in the fall of 2004. Obviously China's deterent ability will be substantially increased. To me China's actions appear a reasonable and entirely predictable response on its part to the belligerent posture of the U.S. and its recent adaption of a policy of preemptive strike against non-imminent threats.

Randall Parker said at August 19, 2003 8:56 AM:

Ed, Is China's steady build up of missiles across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan also a response to someone's belligerent posture? Or is it motivated purely by a desire to bring Taiwan under mainland rule?

Also, is China allowing North Korea to use Chinese air space to ship missile tech and other weapons tech to Iran a response to American belligerence?

Non-imminent threats: is it better to wait for a threat to become imminent before acting on it? By that logic the British and French should have done nothing in 1935 when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland. We all know where that led.

Today we face the problem that deterrence is going to break down as increasingly powerful weapons reach the hands of non-state actors. The key elements of deterrence that are going to fail are the traceability of attacks and the fear of the attackers that they might die. If we can't figure out who launched an attack (still don't know who did the anthrax letter btw) or if the attackers don't mind dying then deterrence will not work.

The US government would be wise to try to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. One reason (though not the only one) is that their spread increases the chance that they will eventually fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists. Treaties have been demonstrated to be inadequate for the purpose of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan went nuclear. Iran and North Korea as getting close. China is unwilling to use every measure at its disposal to stop North Korea. It is China that has adopted a belligerent posture.

Bill Hoshor said at August 19, 2003 11:07 AM:

Ed China has been building up it balistic missiles for over 10 years. This is just now coming to be completion. They have been building up the missiles aimed at Taiwan with a much faster pace ever since President Clinton gave a speech in 98 implying that we would not protect Taiwan as strongly as US policy always had. Which was against what every US president had been doing since 48. The Balistic Missile technology that China now has is a direct result to Clinton's allowing the Chinese into our labs to spy and allowing Democrat supporters such as Loral Corp. to transfer technology to China. Plus the Commerence Dept. easing technology transfer rules starting with Ron Brown.
It is the apeasment mentality that creates threats like this. It is the we will not take it mentality that removes them.

Richard A. Heddleson said at August 19, 2003 11:08 AM:

3-4 years. That seems like enough time for the U. S. Army to recover from Iraq, for a re-election in the U. S., for things in Iraq to come under boiling. To move our troops of the SK-NK border so SK gets to contemplate life without Uncle. For Japan to begin its overt nuke program, for Taiwan to begin its covert nuke program. For the U. S. economy to recover, for the problems in the Chinese economy to become more apparent. While it would be nice to solve the NK problem tomorrow, a little patience won't hurt.

Randall Parker said at August 19, 2003 11:44 AM:

Richard, How does a nuclear Japan or nuclear Taiwan solve the North Korea problem? In 3 or 4 years why should North Korea suddenly become willing to give up its nukes? By then Iran will have nukes and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries in the region will be thinking that they ought to have nukes too.

If it takes the US Army 3 or 4 years to recover from a small war then how can the US credibly threaten Iran and North Korea with conventional attacks of a much larger size?

In our attempt to stop nuclear proliferation we are losing.

gavin kirk said at August 19, 2003 12:22 PM:

I'm afraid I have to agree with Mr.Heddelson, maybe a combination of a nuclear armed Japan and Taiwan will concentrate China's mind wonderfully. At this point it's like pushing on a rope to get China and South Korea to lean on N.K so screw it. We should just concentrate on interdiction from anything coming out of N.K for the time being. We can't do it all by ourselves.

Richard A. Heddleson said at August 19, 2003 1:15 PM:


A nuclear Japan or Taiwan won't solve the problem directly, but the threat will put pressure on China to work for a solution as Mr. Kirk says.

In 3-4 years China should be willing to pressure N. Korea. The issue is China, not NK, unless you are ready to go military, which we may be by then.

You are assuming Iran will still be a mullocracy in 3-4 years. If we have done Iraq correctly, this should become less and less likely.

The Army's problem is it is too small and stretched. Increasing the size of the military will not happen till after the 2004 election. It may be a campaign issue. That will credibly threaten Iran and NK. The military could also do a lot more if the country mobilized for war as in WWII. But it isn't ready to. That's life in a democracy. That's why we have to wait for a PH or WTC. The next one may be worse, but the people seem willing to wait for it and if that's what they want to do, that's what the leaders do. Look at FDR in '40 and '41. Nothing new under the sun.

Randall Parker said at August 19, 2003 1:53 PM:

Richard, once Japan and Taiwan have nukes why would China want to get North Korea to give up their's? In exchange for what exactly? China has ICBMs. It has nukes. It is making more of both. If Japan gets nukes then China will probably just accelerate their nuclear program.

The problem with North Korea will not solve itself if we just sit idly by.

Iran and the mullahs: No revolution will happen in Iran. You can read my Axis Of Evil archive for past posts on why I think revolution in Iran is unlikely.

Richard A. Heddleson said at August 19, 2003 3:59 PM:

Your position seems to be that there is no hope for negotiations. I suspect most have not reached this conclusion yet.

Shaun Evans said at August 19, 2003 6:34 PM:

A quick response to Ed: Following the recent passage of legislation which purchases bullet-resistant vests for police officers, and which allows police to preemptively raid alleged "criminals" under the imperalist fig leaf of "warrants", a local crime syndicate has vowed to purchase fully automatic weapons with depleted uranium bullets, to punch through police vests. These "actions appear a reasonable and entirely predictable response on its part to the belligerent posture of the" police.

Richard A. Heddleson said at August 20, 2003 11:22 AM:

Crank up another ratchet on the Chinese.

Richard A. Heddleson said at August 20, 2003 11:36 AM:

Looks like your post has gotten results.

Randall Parker said at August 20, 2003 11:45 AM:

Richard, the Coral Sea US Navy exercise was announced last week. I forgot to make a post about it. It was probably developed for some weeks or months before that. As for whether the US will follow thru and start intercepting North Korean shipments: maybe. Also, if it does how effective will it be? North Korea could start smuggling drugs thru China if it isn't already. It already sends weapons via aircraft across China.

As for the Russians backing off of support for North Korea: it doesn't matter. South Korea and China are North Korea's two biggest soures of aid and trade. Trade is growing with South Korea and quite rapidly. China is continuing aid support. If either switched positions that would be news. I can't gauge China's internal thinking. But South Korea is a lot easier to read and I do not expect them to change their stance toward North Korea.

So I still expect North Korea to build many nuclear weapons. Iran will follow with North Korea's help.

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