As Secretary of Defense Gates noted, any question about North Korea has only one response: “I don’t know.” There is indeed so little we know about this barbarian kingdom with nuclear weapons. Hence almost anything one does say is speculative.
As I see it, the nuclear facility recently disclosed is designed to be inflammatory. What it means is that North Korea can increase its supply of weapons and use them as negotiating instruments. Since there is nothing of value in North Korea, since the economy is moribund, since the government cannot supply basic necessities for the population, nuclear weapons – at least the threat of deployment – is a negotiating wedge for foodstuff, oil and hard currency. By any measure, this is an extortion ploy.
In a curious way, the Chinese government is complicit. China has the ability to clamp down on this backward kingdom, but it averts its gaze. From a Chinese perspective, North Korea is an effective pressure point on the United States and its allies in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. What the stalemate with North Korea demonstrates is the relative ineffectiveness of U.S. diplomacy and the obvious fact that the U.S. is an unreliable ally, perhaps even an untrustworthy ally.
What the U.S. cannot deliver – a stable East Asia – emerging Chinese military prowess in the region may. In other words, China uses North Korea as a tool to promote its regional dominance and, in the process, undermine U.S. influence.
This strategy has its advantages for China at the moment, but it could backfire. If Japan uses North Korean saber-rattling and Pyongyang’s deadly artillery barrage on a South Korean island as a catalyst to dismantle Article 9 of its Constitution and start producing nuclear weapons, China’s military dominance could be challenged. Anti-Chinese sentiment in Japan should not be underestimated.
North Korean gamesmanship and Chinese cleverness are proceeding down a dangerous path in which an escalation scenario is quite plausible. The world waits to see how this situation will unfold with baited breath and the Iranian regime watches with intense interest. What the U.S. does in North Korea – or doesn’t do – is regarded as a portent of the U.S. position on Iranian nuclear weapons as well.
Yesterday, in yet another unfolding chapter in this tale of conflict, the United States and South Korea began joint naval maneuvers, an unmistakable message that sufficient force exists in the neighborhood to counter North Korean aggression. Moreover, even in South Korea, a country known for its restraint, there is increasing pressure to respond to Kim Jung Il’s unprovoked attacks. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told Chinese emissaries that now isn’t the “right time” to resume disarmament discussions. In fact, President Lee bluntly said Beijing should adopt “a more fair and responsible position” on Korean issues. Furthermore, President Lee said North Korea “would pay a price” for further aggression.
U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs, said, “It is hard to know why China doesn’t push harder. They clearly are interested in this – in the region not spinning out of control – so my sense is they try to control this guy, and I’m not sure he is controllable.” Of course that is one man’s theory. Another theory is that China benefits from the chaos by diminishing the U.S. role in the region and creating the impression with U.S. allies that only China can stabilize the unruly situation.
This is a scenario with dangerous implications, but strangely the world has seen it unfold before and diplomats seem to believe it will unfold again.
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers).