Benefiting from the Conflict in the Korean Peninsula: How China Came Out on Top

By 

OVERVIEW AND HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT

The basis of international affairs surrounding North Korea is the Korean War 1953 armistice. A permanent peace agreement was never enacted, and therefore, all interactions with North Korea continue to be conducted under the auspice of war-time conditions.  Awkwardly, North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, and would later agree (1994) to phase out its nuclear capabilities in exchange for international support in development of a civilian nuclear power program.  This dynamic has created conditions for international access to North Korean nuclear programming.

US authorities determined, in 2002, that North Korea maintained a secret nuclear weapons production program and in 2005, an energy crisis in North Korea resulted in the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and China agreeing to provide energy aid and ‘economic cooperation’ (i.e. a transfer payment) to North Korea in exchange for the North’s pledge to dismantle all nuclear weapons and facilities.  North Korea accepted the terms of the agreement and promptly violated them by conducting separate ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests.  This commenced a pattern which can be observed from 2006-2016:  North Korean leaders agree to dismantle its weapons program in exchange for payment; after a period of time an advancement in ballistic missile or nuclear weapons is revealed; additional payment is demanded; and the process starts over.

As of 2017, North Korea claims to have successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb and appears to have advanced long-range missile technology to a point where their weapons may be capable of reaching North America.  Only very recently has China increased pressure on North Korea with a view to nuclear disarmament.  One possible explanation for the late arrival of China in this role is the usefulness of a rogue North Korea vis-à-vis China’s regional military interests.  For example, committing the US Navy to force project against North Korea reduces US capacity to offset expanding Chinese control in the South China Sea.  As such, this dynamic creates a three-way security dilemma worth assessing.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

Before we launch into the explanation as to why actors are behaving the way they have over the last few months, it is important to identify the objectives of each state. So, what does each player want?

State actor Main objectives

 

United States ·         Avoid loss of critical economic partnerships with Japan and South Korea as regional actors move closer in terms of economic integration

·         Maintain regional military dominance of Chinese containment

·         Maintain regional military dominance of Russian containment

 

China ·         Control over the South China Sea and extending economic waters/zones

·         Maintain military buffer with the United States and avoid Russian-like NATO containment

·         Maintain centralized control of RMB to favour exports and ideally avoid US accusations of currency manipulation

 

North Korea ·         Development of sophisticated military deterrents to preserve the regime militarily

·         For domestic purposes, missile defense has become a cultural cornerstone and serves in preserving/legitimizing the status of the Kim dynasty

·         Status quo: return to the conditions of the armistice agreement, re-instate trade mainly with China and Russia and receive aid from the United States

Although Japan and South Korea are important players in this conflict, because they are not nuclear powers and have played a diminished role in the escalation of the conflict in recent months, they are excluded from this analysis.

MAKING SENSE OF THE CURRENT CONFLICT

In the defense literature, “Security trilemma” – whereby a state, in a complex web of deterrence relationships, may increase its security forces against a belligerent (or perceived as belligerent) state, simply to see a third state feel more insecure. This is the case of North Korea which has alienated its Chinese ally in an effort to develop its nuclear programme and, if its claims are true, reach miniaturization of a nuclear warhead for its long-range weapons. However strict and unfavourable the sanctions may be (and they most definitely are detrimental to the regime), the progression of the regime’s missile and nuclear capabilities seem to have succeeded in galvanizing the domestic population and pushing its military deterrence agenda forward. North Korea succeeds in 2 out of 3 of its objectives.

Although China fears escalation in the Korean conflict, its implementation of economic sanctions against North Korea have set aside previous Sino-American disagreements with regards to accusations of currency manipulation and expansion of territorial waters in the South China Sea. With China able to exert its influence through domestic monetary policy and its expansion in the South China Sea, mild escalations that avoid full fledged warfare have largely benefited the Chinese. Not only have events favoured Chinese foreign and domestic policy, but their alignment with US foreign policy has temporarily camouflaged or immunised them from the ire of Washington that was omnipresent during the last US administration. The recent rapprochement in Sino-American foreign policy may have favoured China, but may endanger longer term relations with North Korea that acts as an important buffer state against American containment. China wins all 3 of its main objectives.

For its part, the US has maintained its spheres of military and economic interests in the region, albeit at the cost of letting China grow its own military might in the South China Sea. Americans have containment directly adjacent to Chinese borders. The American approach is one of incremental pressure on the North Korean regime by forcing the regime to break under pressure. Whether this be an intra-state civil rupture or a North Korea ready to return to the bargaining table with one hand tied behind its back remains unclear. Thus far, the US has largely maintained its objectives in the region but coming short of exerting pressure on China in other matters. The US succeeds in 2 out of 3 of its main objectives.

WHO WINS AND HOW?

In light of the framework set forth, how would each state characterize a victory in this conflict?

China wins: Current conflict distracts from their other objectives elsewhere and avoid going back to the accusations of currency manipulation and influences in the South China Sea of the Obama administration.

US wins: Culmination of North Korean threats never occur dismantling image of nuclear capability and nuclear miniaturization. Possible implosion of the Kim regime under economic and diplomatic pressure.

NK wins: Go back to status quo with only mild tensions enough to justify military and nuclear fixation for the purposes of controlling the domestic population. Ideally, coerce some form of concession from the US whether it be the withdrawal of trade restrictions or a foreign aid payment.

Unfortunately, these “wins” are unlikely or at the very least short-lasting. No single actor will walk away from this conflict unscathed at the expense of other state actors. However, one thing remains certain: war would be catastrophic and detrimental to all, including other surrounding states such as South Korea, Japan and Russia. Compromise will have to be achieved, ideally through diplomatic channels. Although military options remain on the table, these unsavoury options leave much to be desired. With estimates in the millions of casualties within days, every other diplomatic solution should be exhausted before calling upon a forceful intervention. As for the diplomatic solution, time will tell whether the economic pressures on the North Korean regime are enough to bring it to the bargaining table. However, the North Koreans may force an impasse thinking that they could in turn force the Americans back to the bargaining table if nuclear miniaturization is achieved and successfully tested in the eyes of the world. Regardless of the state of the seemingly deadlocked negotiations between the US and North Korea, China’s recent rapprochement to US foreign policy has deflected attention away from previously contested areas in the South China Sea and has temporarily put an end to American accusations of currency manipulation.

 

Samuel MacIsaac is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.  

Bryan Bereziuk is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in International Conflict Management and Resolution.  He is an experienced practitioner in counter-insurgency operations and defence organizational development.  His research interests include counter-terrorism policy development, insurgency containment, and international technology transfers. 

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