By Karsten Riise
It is always a delight to read William S. Lind. His informed way of putting issues on their head is thought-inspiring, and always makes you wiser – even if, as in this particular case, he happens not to be right.
Is North Korea really a disadvantage to China?
In an analysis “The North Korea Threat to China” 9 November 2017, Lind argues, that North Korea should be seen as a threat by China. Briefly put, his argument is that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons may induce Japan, South Korea, and perhaps even one day Vietnam to acquire their own nuclear arsenal. And that indigenous nuclear arsenals in the hands of China’s immediate neighbors would make it difficult for China to create a buffer-zone of client states around herself.
It serves China
This argument neglects the Olympic fact that China is already confronted by an enormous arsenal of US nuclear weapons, based in South Korea, Okinawa and aboard the US Navy. It also overlooks the fact that some American leaders, due to their country’s faraway location, may be much more prone to risk a nuclear confrontation in East Asia than the indigenous countries inside the region are.
Accordingly, my response to Lind is that China must be happy with North Korea and its nuclear policies. If North Korea can somehow cause the enormous arsenal of US nuclear weapons on China’s doorstep to be swapped for a much smaller nuclear arsenal controlled by the people who live close to China’s borders, and who depend on good relations with China, not only for their survival, but also for their prosperity – then China should be satisfied.
Finally, we must remember that North Korea has a pivotal role as a friendly buffer state for China.
North Korea needs a nuclear deterrent
Unfortunately North Korea needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the USA.
In 1945, the USA used nuclear bombs not once but twice. You might have thought that one such mass-killing was enough. But it wasn’t. General Douglas McArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, but fortunately was prevented from doing so by his president, Harry Truman. At the time, in closed talks, the US leaders shocked the British by casually hinting that the USA was considering attacking Communist China with nuclear weapons. To calm their allies they said that, in that case, they would “avoid striking the bigger cities” (Gribb-Fitzgibbons, Imperial Endgame, 2011). During the Vietnam War Henry Kissinger, according to a TV documentary, raised the possibility of “nuking” North Vietnam, telling Nixon “don’t be so shy about it”.
Numerous historic deliberations of the USA to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear adversaries, and the way the USA breaks its commitment on the Iran nuclear deal, all confirm this.
North Korea needs intercontinental capability
Now you would think that North Korean possession of nuclear weapons capable of devastating its neighbors Japan and South Korea should be enough to deter the USA from attacking. But unfortunately it is not.
The current panic in Washington DC, just as North Korea is on the verge of acquiring missiles capable of reaching the continental USA, proves that, deep inside the minds of US leaders, there has been a false sense of comfort that any US escalation to a nuclear exchange involving North Korea could not touch the American homeland. It even seems to make a difference to US leaders whether North Korea can “only” reach Guam, Alaska or California – or if North Korea can hit their own personal residences in Washington DC. Now, due to North Korea’s new long-range missiles, that false sense of US comfort in its ability to apply nuclear blackmail is about to evaporate.
In other words, North Korea now makes sure that nuclear deterrence in East Asia will become absolutely effective.
It is often argued that North Korea is somehow posing a problem for China. That is entirely wrong. North Korea acts as a “wild-dog on a leash” – and China holds the leash. This is exactly similar to the old play of “good-cop”/“bad-cop.” North Korea plays the role of “bad-cop,” and allows China to play the “moderator.” Thus China can always enter the scene as the “good-regional-cop,” as an indispensable partner in talks with the USA.
China’s play-book works every single time.
China now gets into an even better position vs. the USA
Armed with nuclear missiles capable of reaching Washington DC, North Korea becomes an even better “bad-cop.” As the false sense of comfort of the US leadership vanishes, the “wild-dog” on China’s leash becomes ever more awe-inspiring for the USA.
Now the USA needs China even more, so as to handle the “wild-dog.”
What China – and North Korea – do is, from their point of view, quite correct.