Recalculating the North Korea equation

One byproduct of tensions with the People’s Republic of China over the South China Sea is the opportunity for the United States to abandon the useful but by now threadbare fiction that the massive US military presence in East Asia is needed to protect the world from North Korea.

Rapprochement between the United States and North Korea is one of those things US strategists dream about, I expect: Burma style outreach extracting North Korea from China’s orbit and turning the PRC’s northeasterly neighbor into a US-friendly outpost and gadfly.

Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un

I’ll bet Kim Jong-un dreams about it as well.

North Korea has never been a PRC satellite.  It chafes under China’s thumb and yearns for an independent foreign policy, by which it can profitably play off the PRC against the ROK against Japan against the United States.

North Korean is in diplomatic contact with the United States through the DPRK’s UN mission, by exchange of delegations, and unpublicized US visits to North Korea on the issue of recovery of remains of American servicemen killed during the Korean War.

In order to demonstrate his willingness to go the extra mile in outreach to the United States as well as secure his rule, Kim Jong-un inaugurated his reign by executing the DPRK’s point man for PRC relations, Jang Sung-taek.  Kim was taking a leaf from the Burma rapprochement playbook; in Burma’s case it killed a dam, the Myitsone project funded by the PRC, in order to show it was ready to distance itself from the PRC for the sake of better relations with the US.

Jang’s demise apparently yielded little in the way of improved US-North Korean relations, so I have a picture of Kim drumming his fingers impatiently as he looks around the conference table saying, “Sheesh, who do I have to kill to get better relations with the US?” and everybody sliding nervously in their chairs and trying to avoid eye contact.

Kim’s ambitions are well-known to the PRC.  I believe Beijing secretly exults every time North Korea detonates a nuclear device or fires off a missile in defiance of UN sanctions in a misguided effort to engage the US, since these provocations allow the PRC to present itself as an indispensable restraint to North Korean misbehavior, and prolong North Korea’s imprisonment within the cage of the Six Party Talks, thereby pre-empting bilateral discussions between various interested parties and the DPRK.

My take on the situation is the US knows North Korea is panting for better relations with the United States but feels no hurry to make a move until Kim Jong-un does some more groveling on the nuclear issue—and sticks it to the PRC a lot more.

However, I think there’s a conundrum here for US strategists.

The DPRK’s nuclear program is marketed as a deterrent to US regime-change fiddling and, indeed, US ambitions to overturn the North Korean regime are always burbling if not on the front burner.

Today, however, the most compelling strategic foundation for the DPRK nuclear weapons program — and one that receives virtually no play in the public media — is to deter the PRC.

The PRC has extensive interests and assets, economic, strategic, covert, what have you, inside North Korea, and undoubtedly has game plans to intervene militarily in North Korea in case of a succession crisis—or even before.  But then there’s Mr. Nuke.  So it’s not so surprising that the PRC publicly shares the US interest in DPRK denuclearization.  And it’s not so surprising that the DPRK nuclear program is not exactly withering away, despite the salutary effect this would have on Pyongyang-Washington ties.

The true significance of North Korea to its neighbors near and far, however, is not as a scary nuclear boogeyman; it is because North Korea is the last piece of fat meat on the East Asian economic table.

Cheap, tractable labor, abundant resources, a central position as a gateway to the Pacific for Russia and a trade artery for Japan and the West into the Manchu-Mongolian heartland … no wonder the Korean peninsula was the keystone for Japanese empire-building in the 20th century.

Investment is poised to pour into North Korea from South Korea, the PRC, Russia, and Japan.  North Korea’s economic potential, not its nuclear program, is Kim Jong-un’s ultimate bargaining chip.  And the prospect of negotiating a gigantic payday on favorable terms is probably an important factor holding the DPRK elite together after the loss of Soviet support, the PRC tilt to the ROK, and virtually non-stop crotch-kicking administered by the US and Japan.

So when one examines the jockeying that goes on around North Korea, remember that managing — and profiting from — the integration of the Hermit Kingdom into the world economic system is at the back of everybody’s mind.

And we’re not talking about some “open door” kumbaya action where everybody works together to make sure North Korea, its resources, and its workers are efficiently exploited.

The PRC, in particular, sees the competition to “win” North Korea as zero sum, because it does not want to see a pro-US/Japan-tilting regime on its border.

China’s grip on North Korea’s foreign policy has been strengthened, presumably inadvertently, by the US all-in commitment to Japan as the linchpin of the pivot to Asia.  South Korea is getting hammered by Abenomics, particularly the weakening of the yen, and gets little relief from the United States.

South Korea has pivoted towards China, to the chagrin of the United States, and for the time being sees its interests best served by tag-teaming with Beijing on DPRK policy.

And I think it’s also little understood that Japan, which is locked in its own zero-sum death match with South Korea, does not want to see North and South reunited and the North’s economic potential contributing to a supersized Korean republic whose economic and military vitality would quickly eclipse Japan’s.

This perspective helps explain this remarkable report torn, as they say, from today’s headlines:

Tokyo rejects Seoul’s sovereignty over North

Oct 22, 2015

A top Japanese defense official rejected South Korea’s stance that North Korea is also its sovereign territory and that Tokyo would need Seoul’s consent to ever send troops to the northern parts of the Korean Peninsula.

Based on the constitution, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense has maintained a position that Japan needs to obtain the South Korean government’s permission to deploy its troops anywhere on the Korean Peninsula. Japan recently revised its security laws to enable its Self-Defense Forces to participate in overseas missions, particularly if an ally such as the United States is attacked.

During the defense ministers’ talks on Tuesday, Han stressed that North Korea is legally the South’s territory under the constitution and that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces must obtain Seoul’s consent to enter the North in times of emergency, a senior Defense Ministry official said.

Nakatani, however, rejected the stance, saying, “Seoul, Washington and Tokyo must cooperate on this matter,” according to the official.

“It’s not the first time that Japan backstabbed us,” a Seoul official said. “Before arranging the ministerial talks, the Defense Ministry made clear that the meeting couldn’t take place without resolving the history issue. And yet, Japanese lawmakers made a surprise visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on the morning of the talks. We still went ahead with the meeting, but Japan backstabbed us again.”

To connect the dots, which frankly don’t need much connecting, Japan is declaring the right to intervene unilaterally in the North if and when things turn to ttong.  This of course refers to pre-emptively taking out North Korea’s scary missiles if and when Japan deems it necessary; and it also might mean some kind of expedition to inject Japanese power into the North during a succession crisis on the pretext of securing DPRK missile and nuclear assets that could conceivably threaten Japan.

I expect this piece of Japanese middle-finger anti-diplomacy will not receive any meaningful pushback from the United States and the ROK will, as a result, cleave even closer to the PRC in trying to work out a joint plan to manage the destiny of the North.

So there are at least two complicating factors for the US game plan for North Korea.  The first, as mentioned above, is that the DPRK is unlikely to abandon its nuclear deterrent.  Second, the US tilt toward Japan as its crucial pivot enabler is driving South Korea, the most important and committed player on the future of North Korea, into the arms of the PRC.

The US pivot and the Japanese alliance are baked into US policy for the foreseeable future.

If the US really wants to “do something” about North Korea to pull it more into the US orbit, I suspect it will involve some creative fudging about the existence and character of the North Korean nuclear arsenal.  There is, after all, the Indian precedent for the US turning a blind eye toward someone’s nukes in return for some kind of geopolitical advantage.

But maybe we’ll have to wait for a president who did not win a Nobel Prize for nuclear non-proliferation for that to happen.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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