Living with the status quoEarlier this month, Lü Chao, professor of Shenyang’s Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, published an essay in Global Times suggesting that South Korea and the U.S. should give up on hoping for a collapsing North Korea. His arguments were well founded. But given the current controversy of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery’s implementation in Seongju, one may also suggest the piece was a cynical defense of the Chinese perspective.
The essence of his essay was a description of the unique political, cultural and historical aspects of North Korea. Accordingly, he argued it’s unrealistic for anyone to see a demise of the DPRK. The implication was that the Chinese are not to be blamed for helping the North with life support aid, since the North Koreans would survive regardless.
That may well be true. Meanwhile, there is a great deal of handwringing in South Korea over the Chinese anger of the Thaad system and what the implications may be, beyond the recent cancelling of K-pop performances.
To look at what is really going on and why the Chinese are so upset by a defensive anti-missile system, one needs to step back and consider how the Chinese look at the situation. At a minimum, an anti-missile system designed to take out incoming North Korean missiles could also be used against Chinese missiles aimed at Korea, Japan, the U.S. or elsewhere. Any nation that develops a weapon system is certainly to be displeased when someone else comes up with a counter defensive system.
But that’s not all what is happening. The Chinese are expanding their military presence in the region. Once largely confined to a small brown water navy, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) navy is now expanding further off shore, and contesting small archipelagos claimed by China’s weaker neighbors. While each of the contending Asian countries are doing what they can to legally and militarily counter Chinese expansion, the only real counterbalance is the United States.
Of all the major actors, the Americans are unique. Unlike other players, the U.S. has no territorial claims. Furthermore, the very definition of America is essentially conceptual, largely based on a two-century-old document call The Constitution. So, the Americans represent a counter philosophy, along with the world’s most powerful military. If one thinks about it, it doesn’t get much stranger than that in geopolitics.
The last thing the Chinese need is a reunited Korea, almost certain to one day be under Seoul’s control. The Chinese reasonably worry that US military forces would not decamp upon reunification but would remain in Korea, for whatever stated reason, and continue to counterbalance the PLA. While the US military may promise to keep its forces deployed no further north than Seoul, Beijing is rightfully concerned that the Americans, with or without ROK forces, could quick deploy forces right up to the Yalu River within a unified country.
This Chinese concern confuses western observers of Asia. Some people think that the Americans would not move their forces north of the 38th parallel, since that would put the Chinese on edge and thereby be a disincentive.
Consider a similar scenario from the Chinese perspective. Let’s say the PLA had forces in Canada, but restricted to deployment to within the Yukon Territory. Would Washington be concerned?
And should matters change with those physical restrictions being lifted so that the PLA in short order could roll down to within short distances of Seattle, Chicago and New York, would Washington trust Chinese assurances they would not ever move forces forward?
The answers are obvious. The same applies to the Chinese concerns about their North Korean border security.
At the same time, the other relevant actors — Russia, Japan, South and North Korea — each have their own invested if different rationales to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.
The irony is both China and Russia are sacrificing more than many people acknowledge. North Korea acts a major inhibitor for Manchurian/Siberian regional development. That region is essentially held off from the rest of the world by North Korean isolationism. North Korea’s xenophobia, to offer just one example, dispels the dream of rail and pipe connectivity from Tokyo to London, which can only be done through the Korean peninsula.
In an economic sense, the current status quo is a lose-lose times the six party talks nations. Yet there are overriding concerns. Korea’s neighbors are trying to keep the other parties off balanced while reducing the potential of a unified Korean state, which would inject a new disruptive geopolitical force into the region.
The Americans may attempt the moral high ground in that they alone wish only the best for the Koreans in the long run. But the current situation justifies a forward deployed US military force, including Thaad systems, in China’s backyard — even if originally the sole purpose of American bases in Okinawa and Korea was to prevent a second Korean War.
But America has a pattern in deploying large forces abroad. When original purposes become dated, there are usually new reasons for those forces to remain in place. The new rationales become self-justifying. Or perhaps more of the world becomes greater dependent on Pax America, much to the displeasure of regional authoritarian states, such as China in Asia and Russia in Europe.
In any case, it’s sufficed to say that the Korean peninsular status quo meets all parties’ needs. It explains why the DPRK continues, despite the conventional expectations that it will soon collapse. This mutual cynicism is as much of a factor as Prof. Lü Chao’s explanation of the North Korean character. In other words, the DPRK will not collapse, because it is not in anyone’s interest.
*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”