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China’s North Korea Conundrum

Oct 25 , 2013

It has become clear that North Korea is raising the stakes further on the Korean peninsula. According to a report issued on October 23 by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a new rocket launch site is in development at North Korea’s nuclear weapons facility and that the country has also restarted its plutonium reactor. Satellite imagery has also identified two new tunnel entrances which are normally used for nuclear tests.

Michael Justin Lee

Combine this development with the news from earlier this year that North Korea had conducted a previous successful underground nuclear test, and we have cause for concern.

However, if we play our cards right, this unfortunate situation may well provide the United States with a rare opportunity to draw closer to China on military matters.

Some observers believe that China and North Korea remain comrades-in-arms. This conclusion is at least thirty years out of date.

In actuality however, there is absolutely no love between the two communist neighbors. Any slight comity between the two countries ended when former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung died. Both were experienced war fighters and absolutely instrumental, for better or worse, in the creation of their countries. So they bonded. But the dauphins in charge of North Korea since the elder Kim’s death have merely been using up their supply of rapidly diminishing Chinese goodwill.

North Korea is not some annoying pain-in-the-butt little brother to China as some think. Actually, North Korea is one of the world’s two or three greatest threats to international security and China knows it. This is not the kind of kid brother anyone cops to.

This is especially true since the scions of the Great Leader might actually be outdoing the old man in the self-aggrandizement department, believe it or not. Self-aggrandizement may be good for the ego — less sure about the soul — but it don’t pay hardly nuthin’ as they say in Texas. A billion here, a billion there on such nonsense and pretty soon the people don’t eat hardly nuthin’ at the Pyongyang chuck wagon.

Annoyingly for North Korea, China is friendly not with them, but with South Korea. Despite the ideological gulf existing between communist China and capitalist South Korea, China finds much to admire in that country. South Korea is a technological giant with a magnificent educational system rivaling China’s own. Not insignificantly, it is also a country that boasts some of the toughest military troops in the world. North Korea in contrast has nothing worth envying, so it acts up like a petulant child, annoying China in return.

If China had possessed any significant influence over North Korea in recent years, it would likely have slowed the latter’s nuclear program by now. No sane leadership could ignore the risk of nuclear weapons in the hands of such an unstable neighbor next door.

It is just 600 miles from Beijing to Seoul, the capital of North Korea’s stated enemy, approximately the distance between Washington and Atlanta. China’s capital wouldn’t be able to avoid nuclear fallout in the event that catastrophic hostilities were to break out on the Korean Peninsula. Thus, China has been at wit’s end for years trying to get North Korea in line but to no avail.

For his part, Kim Jong Un, the current Supreme Leader (that actually is his title, along with Chairman of the Central Military Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. You believe the ego of that guy?), doesn’t feel very positive toward China either. True, North Korea would starve if not for China’s food aid. Yet the old saying about a receiver hating a giver certainly applies here. There’s no reason to think that the Supreme Leader would listen to China now. His father and grandfather weren’t particularly subservient either.

So why does China aid North Korea? China’s giving should not be seen as charity as much as realpolitik. Another old saying applies, the one about the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. China’s leaders may detest North Korea’s, but they can see what true anarchy looks like in post-war Iraq. The ramifications of a starving country collapsing next door, particularly one with nuclear capabilities, are considered far, far worse than the cost of supplying them with some food. For now.

But it is only a matter of time before the Supreme Leader, who is known unaffectionately in China as Fatso Kim the Third (Dad and grandpa were Fatso Kim the Second and Fatso Kim the First, respectively. We are a plain speaking people.), goes “too far.” We don’t know exactly where that point is. But it would be best if the lines of communication between the Presidents of the United States and the China remained free.

It would be an irony of truly historic proportions if two of the enemy combatants of the Korean War were to ally on the Korean peninsula. But let us hope it comes to that.

Michael Justin Lee from the faculty of finance and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Maryland is the author of “The Chinese Way to Wealth and Prosperity” (McGraw-Hill, 2012). A veteran Chartered Financial Analyst, he served as Financial Markets Expert-in-Residence in the U.S. Department of Labor. He can be contacted through his

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