Cooling down the Korean Peninsula

Brian M Downing 

The US has sent a missile defense system to S Korea and a carrier strike group to nearby waters. Unimpressed by the deployments and attendant warnings, N Korea continues to test ballistic missiles, albeit without much success, and a nuclear detonation may be in the offing.

Beijing has warned Washington and Pyongyang that the situation could become extremely dangerous and expressed concern over the US missile shield. Words of support to the North, though, have not been heard. Coming not long after Presidents Trump and Xi met at the former’s opulent estate, this must be of concern in Pyongyang, especially so as dinner was briefly interrupted by a missile strike on Syria.

The two major powers may be playing a game of good cop/bad cop on the East Asian stage, with little doubt as to who plays the latter role. But the N Korean leadership isn’t a group of witless hoods in a dank holding cell. The US and China can nonetheless exert pressures and offer inducements that show a long-term way out of the crisis. Nothing will come easy, though.

The game

The US, in conjunction with S Korea and Japan, is putting on displays of military might – live-fire exercises with armor and airpower and naval maneuvers off the coasts.

China, for its part, has expressed concern for regional stability and warned that the situation could degenerate into a ruinous war. However, China has also reduced trade with the North, selling less raw materials and buying less coal.

It has also deployed 150,000 troops to the border with the North, ostensibly to block a flood of refugees in event of breakdown. North Korea may have an alternate interpretation. Even good cops brandish their nightsticks.

Stepping back

Beijing can clearly inflict more economic hardship should Pyongyang refuse to heed its cautions – this at a time of modest prosperity and rising expectations in the North. However, China can also provide a guide to deescalation and offer incentives to move in that direction.

Minimally, N Korea will have to refrain from provocative missile launches and nuclear detonations. More optimistically, future tests will take place at Chinese sites. While this would be a loss of prestige, it would demonstrate increased security cooperation between Beijing and Pyongyang.

In coming years, pressure and incentives will push N Korea toward the Iranian model. The capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium will end and existing fissionable material will be transferred to China for reprocessing.

Many in Pyongyang will see this as dishonorable, but it will come with sizable incentives. China will greatly boost investments in the North, building manufacturing centers such as the sprawling ones around Shanghai. Under enlightened communist leadership, the North can use its highly disciplined workforce to transform the country from poverty and isolation to prosperity and prestige. It can become a more powerful and stable ally of China and help make East Asia even more economically and politically important.

The scenario is plausible, the alternative very bleak.

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Many in the N Korean state will find the Chinese offers attractive. They may even be consistent with a longstanding strategy of the Kim family and its clique: build nuclear weapons and extort foreign investment that will transform N Korea into a modern, more powerful country.

Relinquishing nuclear capabilities will rankle many others, though. Indeed, it may precipitate a coup against those who want to accede to China – a country widely seen as meddling in the North’s politics, especially its successions. Serious infighting could follow, perhaps even large-scale battles or civil war. Naturally, there would be a struggle for possession of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Nothing will come easy, but if even partly successful China will emerge with greater prestige in the world. Such was the case a century ago when Theodore Roosevelt brokered peace talks between Russia and Japan after they fought in the same region.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.