Learning from the pastHow could China be so undaunted and nonchalant despite the rumors of crisis on the Korean Peninsula in April and August and the latest exchanges of verbal and military threats between Pyongyang and Washington?
As China values North Korea’s geopolitical tactical value as a buffer, it is watching the situation calmly out of a sense of duty to protect North Korea rather than abandoning its alliance with the North. However, this is an outdated interpretation.
The real answer can be found in history. China has already experienced similar situations. From the threat of atomic bombing by the United States to the rumored strikes on China’s nuclear and industrial facilities by the United States and the Soviet Union, there have been countless threats but none have materialized.
The reason is simple. The answer can be found in the triangular relationship between the United States, China and the Soviet Union. If one party wants to defeat another, the role of a third player is crucial. Cooperation or condemnation of the third player is necessary. China has learned this rule from historical experiences.
Because of the trilateral relationship, China could avoid strikes from the United States and the Soviet Union. China sees North Korea in the situation. The minimum condition for the United States to strike North Korea in the triangular relationship between North Korea, the United States and China is for China to remain neutral.
History is the mirror of the future, as past experiences could be the grounds for future decisions. Solutions to the North Korean nuclear threat can be found in the past. Just as there is a justification for nuclear development, there exists a process of development. While all of Korea’s neighbors experienced this, neither North nor South Korea ever got a chance to go through the process.
Why was China’s Mao Zedong so obsessed with nuclear development? The main reason was the constant nuclear threats from the United States. Ever since China intervened in the Korean War, the United States made threats of nuclear attack whenever an opportunity arose.
China received threats of nuclear strikes from the United States twice during the Korean War in 1950 and 1953, during the Taiwanese Strait crisis in 1955 and again at the time of the second Taiwanese Strait crisis in 1958. China believes that North Korea’s reasoning for nuclear development is the nuclear threat of the United States.
Since the Korean War, the Korea-U.S. alliance has been established and the U.S. Forces are stationed in South Korea. North Korea began to feel the nuclear threat of the United States in two ways, the nuclear umbrella and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. The tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn in 1991, but the nuclear umbrella remains.
In nuclear development, there is no giving up midway. A country that pursues nuclear development is possessed by the politics of power and realist ideas. It has a strong faith in nuclear deterrence and believes that nuclear possession is the best defense against nuclear threats. Therefore, North Korea is likely to continue its nuclear development even when all external assistance stops, strong sanctions of the international community are imposed and its people are starving. It seems to be a quite a challenge to discourage North Korea’s nuclear ambition.
Having experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Kennedy administration was furious at the expansion strategy of communism. In 1964, the United States promoted two strategies, full-blown involvement in the Vietnam War and strikes on China’s nuclear facilities and infrastructure.
The former was realized in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in August, and the latter failed as the Soviet Union presented the Soviet-China alliance that only existed on paper. From August, Washington confirmed Moscow’s position on attacks on China’s nuclear facilities. Amid the détente between the United States and the Soviets, Washington expected Moscow to cooperate or condone its efforts. But the Soviet Union discouraged the United States out of national interests.
In 1969 it was the Soviet Union’s turn. In March, the Soviet Union clashed with China over a border conflict. In the fall, the Soviet Union wished to strike China’s nuclear facilities and industrial infrastructure. It also required confirmation of Washington’s position, and the United States opposed it because of the possibility of a third world war. The Soviet Union had to scrap the plan.
As striking one country’s nuclear facilities cannot be carried out against the political will of another nation, it requires cooperation from neighbors. North Korea and China are also allies, at least on paper. China knows from experience that Washington’s will to strike North Korea can be successfully deterred with strategic ambiguity.
Both the United States and China know that armed strikes on North Korea’s nuclear facilities and infrastructure are realistically impossible, as it requires China’s cooperation or condemnation. Moreover, unless the United States provides specific post-strike plans, China doesn’t even need to respond.
How North Korea would react to China is not an issue. At any rate, it is a war that North Korea will lose. The key is a blueprint for the future of the Korean Peninsula based on the premise of North Korea’s defeat. Without a prior discussion on this, it is illogical to expect China’s support.
Also, it means that China does not want to discuss Korea’s future after the war at this point. It does not want to reveal the cards it holds. The Korean Peninsula and the North Korean nuclear program is a round of poker, and every player is hiding their hand.
New players joined the game this year, U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Trump is busy and goes around getting on everyone’s nerves. But existing players haven’t responded as they don’t want to bet just yet.
Betting will begin after the next cards are dealt. But no one wants to begin the next round. We need to be patient and make a bet when there is a chance of winning. Whether we bet on a military strike, sanctions or dialogue, we need to focus all our attention on the winning card.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 3, Page 23
*The author is a professor of Chinese studies at Kyung Hee University.