However the North Korean Crisis end, China loses
Unsurprisingly, much of the focus surrounding the North Korea Crisis has been on the reaction of South Korea and the United States, and to a lesser extent Japan. It is after all they who are the subject of the North’s tirade of ridiculous bombast, and it is they (specifically South Korea) who will bear the brunt of any conflict.
But the elephant in the room on this one is China. It strikes me as odd that so much attention is lavished on China’s rising prominence in international affairs, yet on an issue where China is central, we hardly hear a murmour from the press.
North Korea is arguably China’s more pressing geopolitical problem, and one with no clear favourable solution. Every conceivable outcome leaves China worse off than it is now. Let’s examine them.
North Korea collapses
There’s no way of knowing if or when this will happen. The intelligence community did not foresee the end of the USSR – an intelligence failure greater than its weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco. In the parlance of geopolitical buffs, the “fundamentals” explain why regimes change and collapse, but they don’t tell us less about the all-crucial “when.” If the Soviet and East Germany political and economic systems had been sound, they would be with us today. The North Korean fundamentals could not be more terrible – a closed society unable to provide its population with subsistence, but it has survived as such for decades.
Part of the problem of course is that we know so little about what goes on inside North Korea. Korea watchers, people who spend their professional lives examining the country, still can’t name every North Korean minister and service chief.
But if North Korea collapses, China will have to deal with not only a flood of refugees, but also the loss of its critical buffer state. China would have to decide between Korea unified under the flag of Seoul, or rushing install a new client regime in the ruins of the North. Realistically, the former is far more likely as it would have international support and even China doesn’t have the clout (yet) to install puppets. So not only would China have a US ally on its border, but the former North Korea will be awash with weapons ranging from rifles to nerve agents. Both of these are security nightmares for Beijing, but neither have an obvious remedy.
It goes without saying that this is the least desirable outcome to the current crisis. As Bob Foster sets out in terrifying clarity here, a war between the Korea’s would leave hundreds of thousands dead, economies in ruins, and could even draw the US and China into conflict with each other.
If conflict did erupt between North and South Korea, China would be in a bind. It is technically bound by various treaties to come to North Korea’s aid, but as any student of history knows, treaties are only valued for as long as they are useful. If Chine did decide to try and save its erstwhile ally, it would have to countenance the likelihood of coming into conflict with the US. China is not ready for this, and it knows it. China lacks the advanced logistics, the command and control capabilities, and the experienced NCO base that turn a parade army into a fighting force. Chinese soldiers can hold impressive parades, but they can barely control their own Western provinces. And if the war escalated, it would only be to China’s detriment. It is painfully vulnerable to blockade by the US navy from various choke-points. Two decades of Chinese growth and progress would be lost in two months.
More to the point, the North would lose even with Chinese support. North Korean forces would make initial gains simply by weight of numbers, but then stall and crumble. North Korea is a boxer with only one punch left in him. South Korea and US counter offenses would roll back the Northern forces, possibly as far as the Chinese border. Korea would be unified and the US would have a sizable military presence on the Korean Peninsular with nothing else to do but hold a dagger at China’s industrial north eastern heartland.
This may seem an odd scenario. Granted, images of goose stepping legions, jet fighters screaming overhead, bombastic speeches and rocket tests don’t normally precede calm mature discussion. But consider that most of the recent posturing has been for internal reasons. North Korea has not made any demands. It is not seeking food aid or fuel as it was in the 1990’s. It is very possible that there are reformist elements in North Korea battling the Old Guard for control of the North Korean leadership.
Remember, the leadership of North Korea have access too the outside world in a way the citizenry do not. They are intelligent people who must surely see that the edifice of the Northern regime cannot carry on entirely. Much like Eastern Germans saw how far behind their Western kin they were falling, elements of the Northern leadership may very well now, through back channels, be in contact with South Korean, Chinese and US officials, hashing out plans to peacefully unify Korea.
Again, China would have to decide between three regrettable but distinguishable choices; accept unification of Korea by the Western orientated South, rebuff the overtures of the unificationist North Koreas and thus push them into the arms of the South and US, or finally, simply hope and pray that North Korea limps on a bit longer until a better option arises.
There are no good outcomes for China. However the North Korean problem should show China that working within the framework and institutions of the current world system is far more favourable to the alternatives. If an amicable solution can be found with North Korea, it sets an excellent precedent for the bi-polar 21st century.