TCR Brief: We Are Tired Of Hearing There Is “No Good Solution” For North Korea Crisis. There Is.
China gets fed up.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused Kim Jong-un of “begging for war” following North Korea’s 6th nuclear test. Haley wants China and Russia to agree to cut off oil shipments to North Korea. So far, they’ve been unwilling.
But the latest test over the weekend of a giant nuclear bomb may have been an affront to China too. It happened just as China’s President was kicking off a meeting with the leaders of Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa. And the New York Times suggests the test may have been timed to overshadow that meeting, which was designed to showcase China’s newfound worldwide economic and diplomatic prowess, just as the U.S. yanks itself away from trade deals.
A Chinese news agency reports China’s Foreign Ministry swiftly “lodged solemn representations” in an in-person visit to the North Korean embassy in Beijing. This usually would be meaningless, but coupled with China’s statement that “the use of force is not an option”, it seems to be signaling a role for China in setting up and possibly leading any talks that may take place.
And as this story in The Diplomat asserts, “Nothing about a North Korea with a ballistic nuclear weapon capability is good for China.” It points to creating instability in a region China is starting to dominate economically, and the stark fact that China is now surrounded on 4 sides with not-always-friendly countries with nukes: Russia, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. (In fact, China’s currently involved in an armed border standoff with India.) And Chinese scientists warn that the mountain under which North Korea is testing is nukes could collapse, causing fallout to waft across China.
There’s no doubt China for years really liked having a conflict between North Korea and the U.S. on its doorstep. It liked that North Korea was America’s problem. And China and Russia, which share North Korea’s Northern border, like having a buffer zone between their borders and the hundreds of thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops massed to the South. The Guardian put together a good tally of U.S. personnel and firepower in the region:
It also didn’t hurt that North Korea was in such desperate need for hard currency, it didn’t hesitate to allow China to dominate its mining and fishing industries. So much so that China accounted for 80–90% of its exports. And it was in such desperate need for arms, it didn’t hesitate to turn to Russia for weapons and technology. And of course, for years, there were ideological similarities. But not now.
A lot of other things have changed too: Trump wants to do away with the U.S. free trade agreement with South Korea. So China could jump right into that void. And maybe, China’s political and business leaders would view a unified, economically robust South Korea as an even more attractive trading partner than an impoverished supplier of minerals and mollusks with an unreliable or unstable leader. (Especially if South Korea agreed to honor China’s current contracts with the North.)
Reunification would imply regime change, so that scenario may be a bit far-fetched. At the same time, if China’s military also gets on board, it wouldn’t be too hard to achieve. There is already enough communication and contact that it could happen.
There’s an option short of reunification that’s also achieved by China getting fed up: a less-nuclear North. As we’ve stated before, without regime change, the North will never give up its nukes, because that’s all its got. But with pressure from China, it might do a deal similar to the one the U.S. did with Iran (you know, the one that Trump hates), where North Korea gets money in exchange for slowing and showing its nuclear program, allowing international verification.
In some ways, this goes along with what Trump has been saying all along: the key is China. At the same time, we need to help and encourage China to get fed up with North Korea, and that doesn’t really work if they’re totally fed up with us. That means Trump will have to lay off Twitter. Right now, the President’s making the situation more difficult for himself, and China too, by letting himself get played by North Korea’s propaganda masterminds.
We’ve often given Trump credit for being great at promotion and marketing. Kim Jong-un might even be better. While other, far bigger, far more “sophisticated” countries were feeling out Trump, Kim realized early on he “had a live one” and could use Trump’s thin skin and inflammatory rhetoric to vault past ISIS, past Iran, past Assad, capturing the global arch-enemy spotlight, even though the U.S. really has no natural quarrel with North Korea. Especially not a Trump-run U.S. that repeatedly states it has no interest in fostering regime change or championing human rights.
(This story originally appeared in “The Chaos Report” Newsletter. Subscribe at https://thechaosreport.com/subscribe/?scr=Medium)