Mapping Out the Complexities of North Korea’s Geopolitical Position in the Far East
In dealing with North Korea, the U.S. has tried tact and discretion, threats and intimidation. However, with nothing having worked, experts believe the U.S. has resigned itself to the fact that the ruling Kim family is here to stay. In their estimation, America’s judicious use of tact has been nothing short of humiliating for the U.S., while its efforts to intimidate, sometimes by the imposition of targeted economic sanctions against the ruling elite (e.g., on luxury items), have fared better by only the slightest of margins. Indeed, the claim can be made that only once in recent history has North Korea truly had cause to cooperate, when, in September 2005, U.S. sanctions targeted Macao’s Banco Delta Asia, a bank with illicit ties to several North Korean companies including the state-owned Zokwang Trading Company; rumor has it that when North Korea’s assets in Macao were frozen, such was the resultant economic backlash, which reportedly interfered with Kim Jong-il’s notoriously opulent lifestyle, that the ‘Dear Leader’ was compelled at long last to seek common ground with his enemies.
Last month, Glyn Davies, President Obama’s special envoy for North Korean policy, ended a two-week tour of the Far East, during which he met with diplomats in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo to discuss how best to deal with North Korea and its new leader Kim Jong-un. Following a Nov. 21 meeting with Chinese diplomat Wu Dawei, Davies admitted that it “really is up to North Korea” to return to the six-party talks, so he presumably met with little success.
Pointless as it now is to think about a resumption of the six-party talks, this article will not ponder the implications of whatever new diplomatic contrivance Davies and his partners-in-diplomacy have cooked up. Instead, I will speculate about how and why North Korea––a nation so impoverished that roughly 30% of its entire population are starving, and upwards of 50% live in extreme conditions––can continue to survive against all odds.
As it happens, North Korea’s uncanny ability to survive is easily explained by its occasionally paradoxical usefulness to the three major players (China, Japan, and the U.S.) in this Cold War-era struggle for mastery over the Far East, which, despite having seemingly commenced with the recent spat over a small collection of rocks known as the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands, in reality has been waged for decades ever since China turned communist in 1949.
<China> China, long an ideological partner and military ally of North Korea, is certainly not going to betray its only surviving Cold War-era associate to the U.S. Only were North Korea to present a direct threat to China would the latter dissociate itself from the former. And as alarming as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are to the U.S. and Japan––especially to Japan, which is still remembered in North Korea as a ruthless and hateful conqueror––they are of little concern to China, which, given its status as North Korea’s sole economic partner, has naught to fear from the Kim regime.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions––indeed, its very existence––conveniently distracts the U.S. from taking China to task for its ruling communist party’s repression of political dissidents and ethnic minorities, and therefore allows China to get away with more than it should. After all, consider that, were North Korea a non-issue, China, with its brutal treatment of the Tibetans and the Uighur Muslims, along with its suppression of political activism, would arguably go down as Asia’s most egregious human rights offender. So long as this precarious balance is preserved, how can China not do its utmost to protect North Korea?
That being said, however useful North Korea is to China, the prospect of a unified Korea (hereafter called United Korea), for that is what would result should North Korea fall, could also be turned to China’s advantage. China would see United Korea as a potential ally in its struggle against Japan (and, by extension, the U.S., which is obligated by treaty to support Japan against China if, God forbid, it should ever come to war). Such an alliance would be bound by a shared enmity towards Japan which, unbelievable as it sounds, has remained unresolved these past sixty-eight years due to Japan’s reluctance and, in some cases, outright refusal to admit to having been an instigator of war and genocide.
For any alliance between China and United Korea to work, this shared enmity towards Japan, though pretty much latent, would have to be strong enough to trump South Korea’s established military and economic ties with the U.S. Now, it would certainly be too much to expect that United Korea would keep South Korea’s pro-Western outlook while completely dismissing North Korea’s anti-Japanese sentiment. However, that the reverse is similarly inconceivable may be all that prevents China from pulling the plug on North Korea, assuming China wields that kind of influence in North Korea, and allowing a reunification of the Korean peninsula.
<Japan> For Japan, the prospect of an end to North Korea is both reassuring and worrisome. On the one hand, Japan, which may have more to fear than South Korea (and certainly more to fear than the U.S.) should Kim Jong-un ever act on his war rhetoric, would assuredly rest easier at night knowing that a regime with the ability to target Tokyo with nuclear weapons, one that would unhesitatingly justify the ensuing bloodbath as an act of retribution for World War II, was no more. On the other hand, the existence of United Korea would most definitely end the status quo, in which North Korea, again in its capacity as an opportune distraction, has diverted attention from Japan’s historical revisionism and attempts to mitigate its wartime atrocities. An Asia devoid of North Korea would be more inclined to marginalize Japan were it to persist with its obfuscation of history, especially given the near-universal perception that Japan is long past its economic heyday in the 1980s. That Japan has recently become more nationalistic and xenophobic, choosing as its Prime Minister a radical whose hawkish personality and politics harken back to an era during which Japan conquered, raped, and pillaged the Asian continent in the guise of a liberator, certainly does not help the matter.
<U.S.> The U.S. also has a stake in the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula. I speculate that the U.S., in seeking to assure its own staying power in Asia, would want to ally itself with United Korea, joining United Korea’s resources with those of Japan to safeguard America’s interests in the region against an increasingly assertive China; despite its close economic ties with China, the U.S. seems to fear China’s growing might, perhaps because it feels threatened by the prospect of being overtaken as the world’s most powerful nation. In that the U.S. has longstanding ties with South Korea, the U.S. is quite fortunate, for it has already progressed halfway to its ultimate goal of an alliance with the hypothetical United Korea.
In any case, though the U.S.’s apparent reluctance to act against North Korea may be explained by its past failures to get through to the recalcitrant Kim regime, it might also be that the U.S. has deliberately chosen to stall for time until North Korea attains some level of nuclear proficiency, after which United Korea, upon acquiring North Korea’s wealth of R&D in nuclear arms technology following its dissolution, would automatically become a de facto nuclear power, one that could then be turned against China to America’s great advantage. After all, given the Kim regime’s tendency to bluster, does the U.S. really believe that Kim Jong-un is prepared to use his nuclear weapons? Perhaps it feels that China, with its ties to North Korea, serves as a restraining influence on the youthful Kim Jong-un. Also, though, with a nuclear-armed North Korea, there will always be the threat of nuclear proliferation, that same threat exists in any of a half-dozen other nations around the world including Iran and Pakistan––indeed, Pakistan, home to the Taliban and (presumably) al Qaeda, may be more of a threat to the proliferation of nuclear weapons than North Korea, which at least is known to have insulated itself from the outside world––and perhaps the power brokers in Washington have willingly taken that risk.
If America’s objective truly is to establish between itself, Japan, and the hypothetical United Korea an alliance against China, then it has failed to understand one very important fact about the current state of affairs in the Far East: Japan and South Korea are not on amicable terms with one another, and their relationship seems unlikely to improve in the near future given the current diplomatic impasse at which they stand. Despite the two nations’ close economic ties and growing cultural exchange, the specter of World War II ever looms, preventing each from genuinely connecting with and appreciating the other’s position, and their relationship remains tensely civil at best. In my opinion, assuredly as in those of countless Koreans, it is unrealistic for the U.S. to expect Korea to favor Japan over China. After all, besides their support of the merciless Kim regime, what crime has China committed against Korea, save to assert itself economically?
So let this be a warning to the U.S. If it attempts to reconcile Korea and Japan without addressing the underlying resentment that exists between the two, then it will surely fall short of its objectives in Asia.
Now, I’ve digressed slightly, but before I conclude this article, I’d like to reiterate my main point about North Korea and its astonishing ability to endure. To put it simply, so long as North Korea is useful to either of the two largest players in the Far East, these being China and, through its unprecedented influence over Japan, the U.S., its survival is probably assured.
Copyright © 2013 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.
Posted on December 14, 2013, in Articles and tagged China, East Asia, Historical revisionism, Japan, Kim Jong-un, North Korea, Nuclear weapons, Politics, Reunification of Korea, South Korea, United States. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.