Wrong, hackneyed, overworked: Beyond the usual analysis of “China and North Korea”

Is there any piece of received wisdom more universally invoked than the inane piety that China wants to calm North Korea down, and gets annoyed when the Kims act up?  It’s hard to think of many.  This hoary premise gets trotted out every time.  And every time, it comes up short on explanatory or operational value.  It’s never relevant to why the Kim went crazy.  Nor is China coming down on a Kim ever the key to settling the Kim’s hash.  If the snarling Kim stops yelping for a while, it’s always because the U.S. was induced to do something – intensify some negotiating stance, make some offer, fork over some “aid,” make a concession to China; or maybe just look alert enough to make it the wrong time for a showdown.

You’d think someone would figure this out.  When the Kims start throwing food on the floor, somebody’s got an eye on Uncle Sam.

China’s basic posture

While it’s quite true that China sets boundaries on a given Kim’s latitude for geopolitical tantrums, it is wrong to suppose that China wants the same thing the U.S., South Korea, or Japan wants.  China is only interested in pacifying North Korea if events are not proceeding to China’s advantage.  If it is advantageous to China for the Kims to provoke responses out of the U.S., China will let the drama run its course.  (As discussed below, that is the case today.)

Conversely, it is equally wrong to imagine that China instigates what the Kims do.  The Chinese don’t have to make a Kim’s nonsense up for him; the average Kim is an indefatigable nonsense factory.  His natural intransigence and self-cultivated geopolitical alienation are useful for China – a convenience to be prized and guarded.

The Kim psychosis keeps the Korean peninsula divided, with one half of it joined at the hip to China.  For China, that is better than any other option – perhaps even better than the most unlikely one:  a united Korea joined at the hip to China.

The Chinese want to prevent, at all costs, the opposite situation: a united Korea allied with the United States and friendly with Japan.  But a united Korea would tend to be a pain in China’s neck in any case.  For the Chinese, keeping Korea divided is a pretty good option, especially when it’s the United States paying to guarantee that the division remains peaceful.  China couldn’t afford 60 years of guarding the DMZ.

The Obama enigma

The underlying geopolitical structure for that assumption is starting to change, however, in part because of the deliberate, announced policy change toward the Pacific Rim on the part of the U.S.  But it’s also because, in the context of that new policy, no one is sure what Obama will do.  In visibly and enthusiastically rattling the saber at North Korea, he is not doing what previous presidents have done.  There is one exception – John F. Kennedy, abetted by Robert McNamara – and their pattern of behavior in foreign policy did not turn out well.

Obama’s pattern (Honduras, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria; the missile defense pull-out from Poland; the Obama nuclear policy and New START) is as confused as JFK’s, if not as bombastic.  Predicting what Obama means by the rather humorous “airplane escalation” in Korea – first the B-52s, then the B-2s, then, oh, no, not them, the F-22s – is something of a puzzler.  Is he trying to deter something?  If so, what?  Clearly, he’s not deterring Kim Jong-Un’s saber rattling or missile-launcher moving.

I was amused (yet again) to hear on the TV news yesterday that the U.S. Navy is moving one of its “mightiest warships,” USS John F McCain (DDG-56), to the waters off North Korea.  McCain is an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer, and as such is certainly mightier than the global-average destroyer.  But there are 61 other Arleigh Burkes, in total, and 15 others have the ballistic missile defense (BMD) upgrade that McCain has, including four other Arleigh Burkes homeported, like McCain, in Japan.  I’m a big fan of the Arleigh Burke, but I do wonder where the hyperventilating copy billing McCain as one of our “mightiest warships” came from.  I really hope it wasn’t a government office.

The question remains:  What is Obama hoping to achieve with these moves?  It’s like he’s doing an imitation of what he and other academic leftists perceive to be going on when nations come into conflict over something.  These leftists tend to characterize events in terms of nations “posturing” and “rattling the saber” at each other, with the implication that it’s all stupid, regrettable, and untethered to meaningful policy issues – and that it could be prevented with a little grown-up intervention.

It’s as if Obama has never taken the trouble to know that the dealings between nations do hinge on real and particular issues, even when – especially when – the nations come into conflict.  In one way or another, we always negotiate our way into conflict; it erupts when one side says “no,” and the other side won’t be satisfied with that.  Very often, there is a very good reason for the “no.”  And up until the “no” happens, the nations are “talking” real specifics with each other, whether directly, obliquely, or through an intermediary.  The meaning of force deployments in this context is generally unmistakable.  It is clear what each side wants, and what the force is intended to convey.

In the real world, if you haven’t got anything specific to say, you shouldn’t be slinging major weapon systems around as if you did.  We don’t expect better from Kim Jong-Un, who was raised to be a Marxist nut th’owback.  (We’ll see if there turns out to be method in his madness.)  But we should require better of the president of the United States.  What does Obama want North Korea to do?  What is his policy on the Koreas?  How does he think American security is affected by them?  What is his vision for a pacified East Asia, taking into account our ally Japan and the great nations Russia and China, whom we cannot simply ignore?  What is the end-state in view?

None of these questions can be answered, because Obama hasn’t addressed them.  That is the real context in which China has to make decisions.  When Beijing mobilizes military forces at the border with North Korea, it’s not because the Chinese think it will be necessary to use them to control Kim.  It’s because they aren’t sure what Obama is going to do.  The purpose is to clarify China’s interest in the situation, and the reality that intervening in North Korea will result in a confrontation with China.

China can benefit from a stymied United States

I don’t think China is behind Kim’s current brinkmanship; specifically, I don’t think China has to be.  Kim can think this stuff up himself.  But given the view of Obama held by China’s leadership, I do assess that the Chinese would be happy to see the U.S. twist in the wind, if Kim can find a way to confound us after a season of U.S. threat-making.  The Chinese are in no hurry to settle this situation down.

If Pyongyang brings off another missile launch, and the U.S. does nothing – if the reactor at Yongbyon is started up again, and the U.S. does nothing – tensions will be raised in East Asia for the foreseeable future, and U.S. power will not have been able to reduce them.  American prestige in the region will decline, the longer Kim can continue to do the occasional bad thing, while barking out his sclerotic-commie-regime imbecilities.

The U.S. is likely at some point to be faced with the need to do more than “contain” the situation, and at that point, it’s a good question whether our allies will still have confidence in us.  If press disclosures about sending in mighty warships don’t deter Kim from launching missiles and producing more plutonium, what then?  How many “pinpricks” from him will Seoul have to absorb?  What will change in the U.S-Japan relationship, if Tokyo has to manage a state of real and constant alarm about missiles from North Korea?

The Kim regime is a superb convenience for Beijing: an ally with excellent potential to get someone like Obama to imply more than he can deliver, when it comes to regional security.  China doesn’t have to do it herself; she can contain the U.S. reaction by mobilizing on the border, and let Kim’s antics flummox us and undercut our prestige and influence in the Far East.  China is playing a long game – one that was handed to her by Obama himself – and the unknown variable in China’s game is not Kim but Obama.

Has China assessed him correctly?  In terms of whether he would actually take military action against North Korea, I believe so.  The Chinese estimate that he will be deterred from that by a quiet display of will from China.  They are probably right.  Whatever happens, Obama will sell it successfully with the American public and the Western press as a victory – but if it’s actually a U.S. backdown, the South Koreans and Japanese will see that clearly.  And they’re the ones who matter to China’s calculation that the Obama policy on shifting America’s emphasis to the Pacific can be neutralized.

Things have to change anyway

The truth emerging from all this is one that was inevitable: the armistice on the Korean peninsula is not a basis for regional stability.  It never has been.  As long as U.S. power was overwhelming and largely unchallenged, our guarantees kept the armistice stable.  But that period is at an end.  The armistice is one of the fault lines that will crack and widen as our power recedes from the globe.  That is happening today.

A status quo that won’t sustain itself becomes harder and harder to maintain.  The only way to get ahead of this dynamic is to have our own vision for the future of the Koreas, and the region in general, and act to promote it.  My personal vision would be of a reunified Korea, secure and independent, with a comparatively liberal, consensual government – in Seoul, for the time being – open and friendly to Japan, China, Russia, and the West, and not armed against China.  Laboring to promote this outcome would be the same thing as laboring to promote the conditions that could make it possible.

Such an integrated policy set would not entail drive-by threats with mighty warships and dread F-22 stealth fighters, but rather would involve relentless diplomacy and a strengthening of the overall U.S. posture, both economic and military.  The reason China isn’t telling Kim he’s a moron and he’d better sit down and shut up is that the American posture is inverted as regards these features.  We’re making the drive-by threats, but our diplomacy in the region is inconsistent, perfunctory, and reactionary, and the decline in our resources for power is obvious to everyone.

Slinging force around, with press notices, is not what a strong president does.  That’s why China is reading Obama differently from her read on earlier presidents.  It’s time for us to read China correctly, and realize that her stake in the global status quo is not ideological or moral, like ours, but merely pragmatic and contingent.  From her standpoint, she is watching Kim and Obama both act stupidly.  She will get what profit she can from the situation, but she no longer assumes that the U.S. sets boundaries on what is possible for the rest of the world – not even for Kim Jong-Un.  China is interested to let Kim probe the Obama posture, and see how far he can go.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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21 thoughts on “Wrong, hackneyed, overworked: Beyond the usual analysis of “China and North Korea””

  1. Interesting, but I think you might be a tad bit over complex… It’s okay, you are an intelligence analyst by training and profession, so complexity is an important part of the gig.

    I am, however, just a datageek with a history degree, and a military historian by avocation and degree discipline. I also tend to study such things, from my own “peculiar” angle…

    1. The Norks are the ultimate HANGOOK (yes that’s what they call themselves, that’s their ethnicity and their core very seriously held identity.) Hangook are superior in all ways to all people on the planet, period. That’s not just the way they feel, its the way they ARE.

    You have to grow up with Koreans to understand this. I never lived on a post where any number of friends were mixed Korean and American – whose mothers were natives, or full blooded Koreans adopted by American families. We are speaking of incredibly tough, resilient, resourceful, intelligent people and when you mix that with lunatic evil leadership you are bound to have something of a really prickly pit bull to deal with. (unpredictable and always dangerous)

    2. China has always been the Norks’ most important master. Like any pit, they want to please their master, even if their master isn’t particularly interested in torn up dog at the moment. But like any dominant critter, they smell weakness and fecklessness…

    Obozo has already proven himself to be a weak sister sock puppet of a tool job. He’s a puppet who has power only by virtue of the fact that he flies on AF1 and plays golf at various military installations without having to wait for a tee time… The NORK general staff knows this, and their sock puppet of a tool job, all wet behind the ears and full of P and V to prove himself, has decided to grab as many saber handles as he can, and shake rattle and roll.

    I get the distinct impression that he is doing this, not to scare the bejabbers out of Obozo, but to please his Chinese master, and maybe cajole some rewards from them.

    You see, Obummer is weak, his Regime is incompetent which means that everyone of the bullies will have their toadies out challenging him.

    Past reactions to Nork saber rattles have been to throw them a bone, and tell them to STFU. The Chinese have always gotten the message that we weren’t really in the mood.. and gotten their pet doggie under control.

    Well, China might let its pet pest make some more trouble before shutting him down. The Chinese to Nork control looks to be a tad shakier than in previous “Kimerations” so Bejing is playing a dangerous game… Un and Obummer are two of a kind – quasi Marxist figureheads with too much perceived power, and a behind the scenes Politburo that thinks it controls its puppet.

    Ugly stuff… bad joss…


    1. LOL! — one thing I would not say about your analysis is that it’s SIMPLER. 🙂

      The element I see lacking is recognition that the conditions have changed. Before, China had reason to suppose that no one else would be seriously interested in breaching the status quo, because everyone was (comparatively) happier with it than without it, and they all assumed that US leadership would continue down the same path.

      Today that’s no longer the case. In the last four years, Obama has put in question everyone’s assumption about this. China does NOTHING now in the same way she would have done it under the old assumptions.

      China wants to see how far North Korea can push us. The Chinese figure, correctly, that Kim can make Obama look like all bluster, which is good for China’s ambitions. China can also limit how far the US can push back, with the threat of a military reaction if we use force.

      China is willing to let things heat up, if they’re going to, because she can contain how it affects her, and she might be able to profit from it.

      China is not committed to preserving stability on American terms. A lot of people are misguided on that point, unable to think outside the US-centric box. But a lot more nations than China are going to wake us up on that score in the coming years. There is real reason to be concerned.

      1. Dead solid perfect. Spot on… exactly…

        And it is miscalculations of these sorts that have started gravely dangerous wars, (Meaning those that brought nations down.. sort of wars.)

        The Chinese aren’t much interested in pulling in their dog, just yet. Someone find my copy of Sun Tsu… It’s got to be in there somewhere.


        1. BTW… I don’t think that China’s calculations of Obozo are off… They know a useful idiot when they see one. I see the fact that WE are dangerously miscalculating what is going on, and what the motives and operators are.

          Like I said… Bad Joss….

          1. No, I agree, China has Obama’s number. One thing I fear is that they understand this about him: he will let America’s security position deterioriate in any number of ways, as long as the media give him a pass on it. He cares about how things look to specific voting constituencies; he doesn’t care about how things actually are.

      2. “China wants to see how far North Korea can push us.”

        China already knows how far they can push us. They can push us, if done incrementally, to the wall because that’s how far Obama will appease them. It is absolutely to China’s advantage to expose Obama’s bluster. China’s strategic policy is to incrementally reduce American influence by gradually exposing Obama’s conditional, expedient support for our allies while supporting the rogue nations and offering platitudes to the non-aligned nations.

        When Europe, Britain, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada et al finally face up to Obama’s capriciousness, they will NOT arm themselves. They will look to appeasement. It cannot be otherwise, the West’s rot is too deep.

        1. I fear you may be right about Europe and Britain, GB. I’m not so sure about Japan and the others on the east end of Asia. It does take people a while to wake up to new realities, but I think the next 2-3 years will tell the tale.

          What may be the case is that the “rot” will make it impossible for those who HAVE awakened to affect national policy. We will see what happens in the US in 2014. Will it be possible for America to have an election again in which a policy stance opposed to the course of rot can actually win?

          1. Maybe on Japan but that would mean embracing nuclear weapons, which is problematic at best.

            That is exactly what I mean, will it be possible for those who HAVE awakened to affect national policy? Can a policy stance opposed to the course of rot actually win? Upon that question hangs the very survival of the West.

            1. Upon that question hangs the very survival of the West.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

              Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse artist Geoffrey!

              1. Nice satirical response fuster. No doubt as little as a year before the barbarians showed up at Rome’s gates, there were those of your ilk who scornfully disparaged any who pointed to the approaching danger.

                “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

                Clearly, you’re in the first stage of ridicule.

              2. But silly me, we don’t have to go back as far as Rome’s ancient history. Chamberlain and Churchill are perfectly adequate examples of my point.

                But my foolishness extends even further, I keep hoping that with enough warning and reasoned argument, sheep can turn into sheepdogs. But we all must be true to our inner nature, mustn’t we?

                Which brings to mind two other relevant quotes for your edification, as unlikely as that edification may be;

                “Political ideas that have dominated the public mind for decades cannot be refuted through rational arguments. They must run their course in life and cannot collapse otherwise than in great catastrophe…” Ludwig von Mises

                “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” Eli Wallach, Mexican bandit, The Magnificent Seven

                1. it’s the purple (sage) prose that drew the ridicule.

                  keep flying it hyperbolically, and you gotta’ spect that you’re gonna get it flung back….. throttle back or prepare to encounter Mock 2.

                  (Calvera, GB….. and Wallach played him magnificently.)

                  1. Just as its not paranoia, if they really are out to get you, it’s not purple prose if the reality of the situation is actually as described. Over the course of the years we’ve conversed on this blog fuster, I have laid out far more factual and logically reasoned rationale than you’ve been able to rebut. Yet you repeatedly fall back upon simple dismissal as though that were adequate rebuttal.

                    As Von Mises observed, “Political ideas that have dominated the public mind for decades cannot be refuted through rational arguments.” rational argument appears to be wasted upon you.

                    Hopefully, you’ll be around to reap what you’ve helped sow and can contemplate the ruin you’ve helped to bring upon future generations. And though its likely you’ll continue to deny it all, personally I’m confident that in the afterlife denial won’t be an option, nor will personal accountability be avoidable.

                    That thought should make you tremble, have you but the whit to appreciate it. A possibility that I for one will not count upon.

                    1. GB, if you kept telling me for the next hundred years that western civilization is coming to an abrupt end should we relax our guard, I’m still gonna ask for some evidence that you’re not merely noting the tides ebbing and flowing and pointing to the Great Flood of your own lunar influence.

                    2. Mikus Frogius and his posse relaxing at a bacchanal the city of Rome circa 410 AD: “Imperium Romanum is in good health. These barbarian disturbances on the frontiers are merely tides ebbing and flowing”.

    2. I can’t shake the thought that Kim might be a distraction. Probably not for China, as Kim is prodding the US to increase its SE Asia presence. But perhaps fatboy is in cahoots with some other country that would like to divert US attention and assets to other theaters. Iran? Russia?

      Granted, the diversion is not enough to be useful yet. But how does this play out in the next year or two?

      1. To use a basketball analogy, it’s a “full-court press”. Russia, with its facilitation of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability, which shall lead to many more nuclear Iran’s and Pakistan’s and China with its protection of N. Korea are following a strategy that shall, in cooperation with the American left and liberal pacifism, sooner or later lead to a ‘Fortress America’ policy.

        A greatly reduced global presence will lead to an International power vacuum, China and Russia plan to fill it.

  2. So if a probable psychopath that maybe calls the shots in a country of zero significance runs into diplomatic issues with a perpetual novice unfortunately in charge of what’s still the most powerful country on the planet that means hordes of innocent bystanders intent on supplying their kids with food, clothing and shelter have to run the risk of radiation burns? Pretty attractive aspect of the old nation/state scenario. The Comanches were more civilized.

  3. Just some thoughts

    This is as much about the general strategic situation in East Asia as it is on the Korean Peninsula. Of course it’s China who is the main beneficiary of this. We, should be reminding China of trouble somewhere else along her periphery every time this Korean nonsense comes up. .Problem is we’ve burnt a lot of our bridges….

    Funny you mention JFK/McNamara. Too bad JFK and McNamara (among others in the “West”) screwed up in Vietnam. She would have been a useful counterbalance to Chinese ambitions. Who knows, maybe Kerry, Chuck and Jane Fonda could pull off a “Nixon goes to China thing” .. in Hanoi (fat chance of that)… Last I checked, Vietnam is doing some heavy spending on Russian military hardware. But, as we are all now aware, Chinese and Vietnamese just don’t get along. There could be opportunity here, if nurtured correctly.

    The same counterbalance strategy goes for the Philippines (seems like they’re beginning to see the light again, annual joint exercises with the Philippines Balikatan 2013 coincidentally began today. ), don’t know which way Taiwan would lean anymore, or Burma. All these nations, along with Japan, S.Korea and Russia (I had to throw that in) have a stake in reining in China and keeping her restricted to mainland Asia

    The map says it all


    Just a reminder of things that were, Korea could be in line. I’m sure you all will understand


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