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Does China Have a Secret Solution for North Korea?

A client state in North Korea is infinitely preferable to Kim Jung-un’s regime.

South Koreans were outraged by President Trump’s recent claim that he learned from Chinese President Xi Jinping that Korea used to be part of China. Korea has never been a part of China, and it seems unlikely that Xi would make something like that up. Superficially, this seems like just another unfortunate example of the Trump administration’s alternative facts.  However, this leaves unanswered the question of what Xi did say. Even more importantly, why did he say it? I think the answer may point toward a dramatic solution to the North Korea problem.

North Korea continues to test (sometimes successfully) long-range missiles and has conducted five nuclear tests so far. Some experts estimate that it can currently launch a nuclear warhead against South Korea or Japan, and within five years North Korea will probably have the capability of launching a warhead that could evaporate Honolulu. The U.S. simply cannot stand for this. From a purely realist perspective, a North Korea with a credible intercontinental nuclear threat is a severe and direct threat to U.S. interests.  From a Wilsonian perspective, there are even more reasons to take action, since North Korea is one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in the world today. But what to do about it?  

The one thing all experts agree about is that there does not seem to be any satisfactory solution. (As Trump said, “After listening [to President Xi] for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.”) The central problem is that, though the brinksmanship pursued by Kim Jung-il and now Kim Jung-un is savage, it has its own inexorable logic. During the Cold War, North Korea could rely on the support of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. However, as North Korea watched genuine communism disappear in its former allies, it increasingly seemed that the days of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) were numbered. Kim Jung-il did what so many faltering authoritarian leaders do in such a situation: invent a military crisis to give the people a common enemy and justify suppression of dissent. Since then, North Koreans have been on a war footing, waiting for the supposedly imminent South Korean and U.S. invasion.

We and our allies have good reasons to be wary of North Korea. The North invaded the South without provocation in 1950, leading to 36,000 U.S. casualties and more than 500,000 Korean casualties. However, Pyongyang’s security concerns are not completely irrational either. The U.S. demonstrated its willingness to use military force to achieve regime change in both Afghanistan and Iraq. North Korea does not want to be next. In addition, some analysts think that North Korea learned from the U.S. invasion of Iraq that chemical weapons are not a sufficient deterrent to invasion, so nuclear weapons are needed. (Foreign-policy realists will point out that this is an illustration of why regime change and nation building are counterproductive in the long run.)

The preceding dynamic is part of the reason that diplomatic negotiations with North Korea have failed to bring about significant, long-term change in the situation. Anything that brings North Korean society closer to something like normalcy plants the seeds of Kim’s eventual overthrow. Trade sanctions and the threat of force also seem ineffectual.  The government of the DPRK has shown unlimited willingness to make its people suffer whatever is necessary to ensure its own perpetuation. Widespread famine in the 1990s may have killed off as many as 10 percent of North Korea’s population. Even this did not lead to an overthrow of Kim Jung-il. In addition, just last year, after the UN Security Council voted in favor of tougher sanctions on the DPRK, the government of Kim Jung-un warned citizens that another famine may be imminent, but they must continue to show their loyalty to the state and its supreme leader. Moreover, in response to Trump’s Tomahawk missile strike on Syria (which many saw as also sending a message to North Korea), Pyongyang issued a statement that it only “proves a million times over that our decision to strengthen our nuclear deterrence has been the right choice.”  

Whenever the topic of negotiations with North Korea comes up, everyone asks why China, North Korea’s lone remaining ally, doesn’t do something. China doesn’t want an unstable neighbor with nuclear weapons any more than South Korea and Japan do. As the Global Times, a newspaper with close ties to the Chinese government, recently stated:  “the denuclearization of North Korea is a priority that sits above all of [China’s] other interests.” However, two factors have so far hindered China from giving substantial assistance. First, China adheres to a bit of strategic wisdom that goes back to ancient times. The state of Jin wanted to invade the state of Guo, but for its attack to succeed it needed the cooperation of the state of Yu. The ruler of Yu was naive, so when Jin offered him precious jade and thoroughbred horses for his cooperation, he accepted the short-term gain. One of the officials in Yu warned his ruler that Guo provided a buffer against attack by Jin. In what became a proverb, he said, “If your lips are gone, your teeth get cold.” However, the ruler of Yu ignored his advice. Jin invaded Guo, and then immediately conquered Yu. Even ordinary Chinese citizens will invoke this story when explaining why they continue to support North Korea, the “lips” of China. As the Global Times observed: “if Pyongyang were to be taken by the allied armies of the US and South Korea, it would dramatically change the geopolitical situation in the Korean Peninsula.”

The second reason that China has not been much help with Korea is that it actually has much less diplomatic leverage than we assume. During the current crisis, the DPRK rebuffed a request by the PRC to send high-level diplomats to Pyongyang. And Kim’s willingness to allow his people to endure deprivation makes Chinese sanctions as ineffectual as Western ones.

A U.S. first strike against North Korean missile and nuclear facilities might seem a tempting option. However, the likely costs and potential risks of this option are quite high. North Korea will almost certainly retaliate, and Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a city of over 11 million people that is only 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It is easily within the reach of even conventional artillery from north of the DMZ right now. And imagine what would happen if a first strike missed even one North Korean nuclear-tipped missile.  

In general, any first strike on North Korea faces a tactical paradox. The larger the first strike is, the more likely it is to be effective at neutralizing any North Korean response. However, a larger strike requires the staging of more U.S. and South Korean land, sea, and air forces, which will telegraph to the DPRK what is about to happen, making them more likely to launch their own first strike on soft targets like Seoul. As a spokesman for Pyongyang explained, “A preemptive nuclear strike is not something the U.S. has a monopoly on. If we see that the U.S. would do it to us, we would do it first.” So if neither negotiation nor a first strike seems like a workable option, do we just sit idly by while a dictator as unpredictable as Kim develops a credible intercontinental nuclear threat?

This brings us back to the inexplicable conversation Trump reports having with Xi. The most likely guess it that Trump misunderstood something accurate about the historical relationship between China and Korea that Xi said. For example, the northern parts of Korea were under the thumb of the Chinese government during part of the Han dynasty (202 BC–AD 220), though they were not “part of China.” After the Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), they went on to conquer Korea, so technically there was one government of China and Korea at that point (even though it was not a government by Han Chinese). Traditional Korean culture was also deeply influenced by China, adopting the Three Teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

But this leaves the question of why Xi would bother to give Trump this history lesson. Of all the things you could communicate to the U.S. president, why that? Perhaps it was just small talk, but there is a more intriguing possibility. Perhaps Xi was feeling out Trump about how the U.S. would react if the current government of North Korea were to be removed and replaced with a client state of China. A North Korean client state would provide effective “lips” to keep China warm and cozy, but would remove from the stage a destabilizing regime that no player in the region wants.

The most obvious method for Xi to get rid of Kim would be to find a pretext for war. As with any first strike option against North Korea, the attacker would suffer significant casualties. However, North Korea is unlikely to expect or be prepared for an attack by China, and an authoritarian regime like the PRC can do a better job of controlling the media and public opinion about a war. In addition, there are certainly those in the Chinese military who would welcome a war. The Chinese military has not fought a war since a minor skirmish with Vietnam in 1979, and some Chinese worry about the strategic advantage the U.S. has because of its core of soldiers with actual combat experience in the Middle East. Nonetheless, it would be a remarkably bold and risky move for Xi to actually invade the DPRK.

But it may also be possible for China to overthrow Kim with steps short of invasion.China may have more extensive intelligence assets in the government of the DPRK than the U.S. government (or maybe just the U.S. media) knows about. Some North Korean students come to China to study, and the border between North Korea and China is fairly porous. Both situations present opportunities for the Chinese Ministry of State Security to “turn” North Koreans who may chafe under the totalitarian and frequently unpredictable rule of Kim Jung-un. Perhaps Xi knows of a “July 20 Plot” afoot in the Hermit Kingdom?

Is there any evidence that Xi is considering some method of instigating a regime change in North Korea, other than an offhand (and possibly misheard) comment at Mar-a-Lago?  There is nothing conclusive, but China has recently been moving troops near its border with North Korea. The fact that this is common practice in times of regional tension is precisely what would help to mask mobilization for an attack. Commentators have also noted that leading Chinese historian Shen Zhihua published the text of a speech in which he called for a substantial revision in China’s policy toward North Korea, asserting that “The fundamental interests of China and North Korea are at odds.” The fact that the government has done nothing to censor Shen’s speech shows that some kind of fundamental change is at least being debated within the higher echelons of China’s government. These facts, in combination with Xi’s comments to Trump, are at least suggestive.  

What should U.S. policy be if China is willing to cast the die and cross the Rubicon (or the Yalu, in this case)? On the one hand, standing by while China installs a friendly government in North Korea may encourage China’s territorial ambitions in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan. On the other hand, we have seen that the consequences of the status quo in the Korean peninsula are simply untenable. Furthermore, Chinese territorial ambitions in Asia are going to be an ongoing problem for the U.S. one way or another, regardless of what happens with North Korea. Finally, from a coldly realist perspective, it is better for the U.S. and its allies that China ties up its resources with regime change and nation building in North Korea instead of exerting them elsewhere in Asia.

A Chinese client state in North Korea is infinitely preferable to Kim Jung-un’s regime. If China wants to engage in nation building in North Korea, perhaps we should let them. And if Xi was just making small talk with Trump, and has not considered the option of a Chinese-led regime change in North Korea, maybe the U.S. should suggest it to him?

Bryan W. Van Norden is a professor at Vassar College and author of the forthcoming Taking Back Philosophy. The opinions expressed are his own. His website is bryanvannorden.com.



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