Monday, October 16, 2006

North Korea's Nuclear Test: Geopolitical Message to China?

Think About Geopolitics
(Image from Wikipedia)

I have concluded that North Korea's nuclear-weapons program is directed primarily against China.


Because such a policy makes sense geopolitically and explains some of the North's behavior. Readers will recall my expression of bafflement at North Korea's abrupt test after having initially "informed China [that] it may drop its plan to test its first atomic bomb if the United States holds bilateral talks." China confidently passed this information on to the U.S., only to be embarrassed at the North's sudden reversal. At the time, I wondered why North Korea were willing to appear so erratic, especially at the price of slapping China in the face, and I expressed my continuing bafflement:

The baffling part about North Korea's decision to test its nuclear weapon is its apparent indifference about embarrassing its patron China, which had just reassured the world that the North was not about to test a nuclear weapon and which is currently apoplectic enough to criticize the Kim Jong-il regime for its "flagrant and brazen" violation of international opinion -- China's way of letting the North know that it's very angry about its loss of face.

China's expression "flagrant and brazen" was duly noted by many commentators because the phrase (hanran [悍然]) is ordinarily reserved for describing actions by hostile powers.

I then noted that the Marmot had posted a link to a CNN report, "NK army 'wants early nuclear test'" (CNN World, North Korea: Nuclear Tension, October 8, 2006), that clarified my bafflement as to why North Korea would choose to embarrass its patron China:

U.S. envoy John Bolton said last week that while Britain, France and Japan had made clear [that] a strong statement was needed to warn Pyongyang against testing, he was not certain "what North Korea's protectors on the (U.N. Security) Council are going to do".

In response, Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya said: "I'm not sure which country he is referring to, but I think that for bad behavior in this world no one is going to protect them."

Wang's remark riled North Korean generals who bristled at the notion of needing China's protection and urged their leader, Kim Jong-il, to bring the test date forward, said the source who requested anonymity.

"North Korea is especially unhappy with China," the source told Reuters after speaking with senior North Korean officials.

"This is chauvinism. North Korea does not need Chinese protection. North Korea is no longer a dependency," the source cited the North Koreans as saying.

From this, I concluded that North Korean nationalism, directed against China, spurred the military to "urge" an earlier test.

But North Korea wasn't simply reacting emotionally out of an aggrieved sense of insult to its hypernationalism. Rather, it was expressing an underlying geopolitical strategy, and China's use of the word hanran, implicitly treating North Korea as a hostile power, shows that China recognized this.

Jodi, over at Asia Pages, has recently posted in "Uneasy Moments" a statement that she heard a Chinese man tell a group of South Koreans who were blaming the U.S. for the North Korean test:

[In] the closing of the discussion[,] ... the Chinese man said in a quite terse tone to the South Koreans, "You have to realize though that North Korea is causing a very huge problem for China as well."

Well, what is this "very huge problem"? The problem is not merely that Korea embarrassed China. That's not a huge problem -- and certainly not a "very huge" one. The enormous problem for China is that North Korea chose a critical moment to declare not only its independence of China but its nuclear hostility toward China. Precisely that is the "very huge problem for China."

If I'm right, North Korea's implicit geopolitical circumstances open a window of opportunity for the U.S. and South Korea to reach out to the North.

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At 7:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can agree that an additional motive for proving a nuclear capability would be to prevent a possibly Chinese land-grab of North Korean territory, but would estimate that to be far behind the other reasons.

North Korea has a history of doing whatever it wants, including when it came to both China and the USSR. Refer to Dr. Suh Dae-sook’s “Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader” for details of the Soviet-Korean and Sino-Korean disputes.

I’d guess North Korea realizes that they have China in a difficult position, and realize that one of the reasons given by pundits for China’s reluctance to act, the desire for stability before the 2008 Olympics, will be just as, if not more, true after those games.

I see China’s talk as just that for the most part – after all they’ve already indicated they would not interdict all suspicious North Korean vessels even though that is called for in UNSC 1695.

As for the timing of the test, it pretty much stole the thunder from Ban Ki-moon for the entire week.

I don’t know if China wants to replace Kim Jong-il, but if they do they’d still have many of the same problems; outside information would still disrupt the government, and that instability is still something China does not want.

One possibility would be to replace Kim with someone ready to deal away the regimes WMD for real – but that could lead to reunification and USFK on the PRC-Korea border, something else China does not want.

I’m betting that North Korea will shun any deal that includes actual CVID, and bask in isolation for the next few years (but I hope I’m wrong).

At 12:32 PM, Blogger kimcheemonster said...

Thank you for the English lesson you provided on my blog. As you are a professor, it was appreciated. This is in your profile: "My doctorate actually is in history, technically in history of science at U.C. Berkeley.." I did not know there was a major that was so specific: History of science at U.C. Berkeley. Wow! I didnt know there was such a major. ^^
I enjoy your blog.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Interesting suggestion. I suspect though that it's really aimed more at his own people than at any outside entity. See what a great country we are. We're playin' nuclear with the big dogs.

Nukes are like guns. They work against everybody, not just the enemy du jour.

At 6:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Richardson, for the comment. I haven't yet had a chance to read the link -- Mondays (and Wednesdays) are busy teaching days (Western Civilization, Medieval Literature, and Contemporary American Culture).

I think that things are in flux right now, and I suspect that North Korea is waiting to see what happens. I'm pretty sure that geopolitics won't allow China to alter its relations with North Korea. I don't know if CVID is possible with the North, but even a compromise position could give an opening that might allow for repositioning over time.

I'm sure of only one thing. We have no card to play other than engagement because China simply won't press the UN-sponsored sanctions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kimchee Monster, thanks for the comment. I've seen your 'name' in various places but only visited your blog via your comment at Jodi's Asia Pages.

I'm glad that you 'appreciated' my English lesson. Hmmm ... what lesson was that?

Oh ... right. About present participles.

Well, they're quite important ... and enjoyable.

As for history of science ... on that, I've forgotten more than I'll ever know.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, I suppose that nukes have a number of aims -- at enemies, friends, and one's own population.

Thanks for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As China seeks to become a world player, I think this issue is their best test.

At 9:41 PM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

The only way to stop the threat is a pre-emptive strike now, but Bush is going to be so busy waffling, it will never happen and the opportunity will pass us by... just as it always has for us over these last couple years.

At 10:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I suspect that China will pass the test since North Korea is stuck with them, and China will do whatever it sees is in its own interest ... unless the U.S. and South Korea could work together to draw the North into the South's orbit.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Saur, the problem with a pre-emptive strike is that the North would then rain down shells on Seoul -- and probably on Tokyo, too.

Also, we don't know what China's response would be. Not that ol' Gypsy Scholar would be around to observe and blog on it after the North's shelling of Seoul.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:56 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

HJH, you might be interested in an opinion piece in today's WSJ:
Great Leadership
What I saw in North Korea.

At 4:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, thanks. I'm already behind on my reading, having not yet gotten to Richardson's link, but I will certainly read both links.

Jeffery Hodges

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