On the Spot analysis by Șerban F. Cioculescu, researcher at the Institute for Political Defense Studies and Military History (Bucharest).
During the morning of 29th August, the North Korean leader – Kim Jong-un – ordered his army, one of the most numerous in the world (over a million soldiers) to fire a missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido, in a gesture of defiance not only toward Japan, but also toward the United States of America (the main protector of South Korea and Japan). The missile flew unbothered for approximately 2700 kilometers, at an altitude of 550 kilometers. And the reason seems clear: the American and South Korean forces take part in intense joint military drills in the peninsula, to the dismay of the Pyongyang leader. The new South Korean president, the rather pacifist Moon Jae-in, seems to have accepted the necessity of bringing new military platforms after – initially – rejecting the installation of the THAAD missile defense system. He did so in order not to threaten the South’s flourishing economic relations with China and hoping that Beijing will finally discipline its deviant ally. A hope that has not fulfilled so far.
The missile seems to be an intermediate range Hwasong-12. And this is not the first time when the Korean communists fly their missiles over the territory or territorial waters of Japan. Every time Tokyo protested, but avoided to pass on to direct defensive maneuvers which would further antagonize the communist regime. Every time they complained to the Americans and to the other UN powers, ending in punitive measures and economic sanctions that weakened the North’s impoverished economy, but failed to diminish its willingness to continue ballistic and nuclear experiments. As the population hungers, the army always receives funds. And the leader that mocks international law seems adamant. No plot, no revolution (or insurrection) can be discerned so far on the horizon.
However, the question is how much would Beijing be willing to risk for protecting its turbulent ally? It should be remembered that only had the communist North Korean state been created when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) felt obliged to intervene in a war that opposed Pyongyang against a US-led coalition (under the UN aegis), after the North erroneously hoped to a Blitzkrieg conquest of the capitalist South. PLA would lose thousands of soldiers in 1951-1953 (provoking serious damages to the American forces) and although the USSR also supported the communist satellite, in the last decades, the great protector and economic supporter of Pyongyang remained the PRC.
In the era of the ‘great leader’ Mao Zedong, China embraced a quite aggressive military doctrine which envisioned a massive use of force when it was considered that the country is entitled to win the war and that the war is just. That is why it got to fight against India in 1962 for ‘adjusting’ the borders inherited by the Indians from the British colonial era, then against Vietnam (in 1979), not to mention the bloody border clashes on the Ussuri river against the Soviet forces (1969). Although constantly claiming to be a peaceful country without hidden intentions, the statistics actually show that China was part of military border conflicts with several of its neighbors, not hesitating to attack when it considered to be morally entitled. For modifying boundaries and punishing countries that assaulted its protégés. Why would it now hesitate to defend North Korea in case of an American attack? Especially in the context in which – beside Pakistan and North Korea – it has no formal allies (Russia simply being a ‘strategic partner) and their loss would be unpalatable.
The problems is that North Korea is now an extremely aggressive and unpredictable state, while its threats against the United States have transformed into a routine. At a verbal level, Pyongyang is an aggressor and the UN Charter forbids not only the use of force, but also the threat of doing so. In the same manner, the ballistic test and the accelerated nuclear build-up turned the communist Korean states into the biggest challenge for the international community. China is irritated by the US pressure upon itself for convincing DPR Korea to stop the ballistic tests and pursue nuclear disarmament, insisting that it does not possess sufficient leverage to radically change Pyongyang’s actions.
However, on 5-6th August 2017, PRC voted alongside the United States in the UN Security Council a resolution that imposed new sanctions on North Korea (for continuing the nuclear program, getting to the miniaturization of the atomic bomb in order to fit a carrier missile and for the first two successful tests with intercontinental ballistic missiles), gravely disrupting its economy by reducing its incomes from three to two billion USD. In this regard, North Korea has been forbidden to export coal, iron, copper and seafood, while third-countries are prevented to hire other North Korean workers on their territories and associating with North Korean partners in joint-ventures.
The Chinese vote in the UN Security Council shows that either Beijing lost control over its small rebel ally or that it wants – at any cost – to prevent an American military attack against it. Beijing is discontent with the US bringing additional military hardware in South Korea and Japan in order to counteract North Korea. This includes the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system and its radar in South Korea which can – actually – serve to also block potential Chinese attacks launched as a reaction to a perceived American aggression. China complains that – implementing the embargo decided by the UN Security Council – it will suffer an increased cost given the traditional economic relations with Pyongyang (for instance, the imports of cheap Korean coal). The North’s threats toward the United States and the South are linked to the presence of American troops on the peninsula, taking part in joint exercises with the South’s military. Pyongyang would like to see these troops departing and the US moving its 30.000 soldiers from the southern area, before starting any discussions on nuclear disarmament. Of course, China would also wish this outcome and – thus – has no reason to radically depart from Pyongyang’s demands …
Although under pressure from the US, China shows that it does not want or it cannot influence the North Korean leader for the better, determining him to stop the nuclear program and the aggressive testing of ballistic missiles. The missile launched in July 2017 has shown that the communist Korean state can reach targets on US territory, situation considered unacceptable by the Americans. On 9th August this year, the Pyongyang leader allowed general Kim Rak-gyom (commander of the Strategic Rocket Force of KPA) to threaten the United States the DPRK would launch Hwasong-12 missiles against targets situated at 30-40 km from Guam, after Donald Trump’s declarations that North Korea risks a devastating war (“fire and fury”). Guam accommodates American soldiers and the killing of any of them after a Korean missile attach would oblige Washington to offer a strong reaction. Of course, there is no proof that Hwasong-12 missiles can fly that distance and that they are precise. However, it becomes clear that the possibility of an American attack against Pyongyang has increased.
At the same time, China cannot remain impassible in the case of an American attack, leading to great material destruction, North Korean refugees assaulting Chinese borders (and Russian ones, though the access is much more difficult) or in the somewhat plausible hypothesis that the dissatisfied North Korean population would try overthrowing the communist regime and the reunification with the South. A large Korean state dominated by the United States and Japan would be unacceptable for Beijing (losing a valuable strategic buffer) which could only tolerate a foreign intervention only if it is guaranteed to maintain a sphere of influence in the peninsula or the perpetual neutrality of the newly unified state, with guarantees offered by the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
But it would not be reasonable to expect a PRC military intervention (not even jointly with Russia) to defend North Korea from an American attack, if Pyongyang is the initial aggressor. As it is now improbable for Washington to decide on a preemptive attack against Pyongyang (given that it would be condemned internationally and would not be able to convince all the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, not to mention the real risk of KPA launching a missile and heavy artillery attack against targets in the South and Japan), it becomes clear that the risk of a Sino-American or a Sino-Russian-American-Korean war (with or without the presence of NATO members such as the United Kingdom and Canada) is low.
The PLA surely is in the possession of intervention plans in North Korea, in order to prevent regime change and the rapid reunification under Washington’s control. It will intervene in the context of a civil war and even in the case of a discreet external intervention (hybrid warfare), but we believe that it will not risk a war against NATO countries or their partners (Japan, Australia) led by the US.
On 11th August, one of Beijing’s semi-official newspapers – Global Times – argued that PRC should remain neutral if Pyongyang attacks the US without any provocation: “China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral”. However, China will somehow intervene if Washington and Seoul will try to change the North’s regime and modify the status quo in the peninsula. But it is possible that such an intervention would use methods specific to hybrid warfare, camouflaging its presence in the war theatre.
In the extreme case in which (and against any predictions characteristic to the rational actor model) Kim Jong-un actually decides to attack an American target (or targets from South Korea and Japan), China will be placed in the dramatic situation to rapidly decide whether it supports its ally – with the risk of being drawn into a devastating and undesired regional war (especially from an economic perspective) – or it does not meddle and it loses a strategic pawn, facing the change of the last Stalinist regime and the transformation of a united Korea into a large pro-American state (with troops reaching the border with China, in the North of the peninsula). Keeping in mind the proportions and the different strategic context, it would be similar to tsarist Russia in July 1914 when Austria-Hungary was preparing to attack Serbia, after it partially rejected its ultimatum. With the observation that the Beijing regime is not faced – at the moment – with massive revolutionary risks within its society, as it was the case of Russia one century ago.
What it becomes clearer by the day is the fact that PRC and Russia tolerated the nuclear arming of a state ruled by an irresponsible leader, one which forges his legitimacy by cultivating a conflictual behavior with the world’s greatest military power. Beijing cannot be one hundred percent sure that a loyal communist regime will be able to control its territory and that is why the possibility of a hostile regime having access to nuclear weapons raises the problem of planning an advanced missile defense system. Of course, China never wished that DPRK had access to nuclear weapons, but could not block this evolution without the risk of losing its ally, one of the few it has. The worst fear of China is a war against the United States, one that would probably lead to the use of nuclear weapons. In order to avoid any incident of this type, the Chinese have officially adopted the ‘no first use’ doctrine, meaning that they will never use first such weapons, but only in case of an attack from a state armed with nuclear weapons. However, what will they do if the Americans attack their nuclear installations using conventional missiles? Is the doctrine still applicable?
The decision to impose sanctions to Russia and North Korea in August 2017 clearly affects Russia’s calculations and not only those of China. Russia is its strategic partner and a potential ally in a confrontation with the US, as well as its main source for weapons acquisition, but the Russian economy is ever weaker (due to the Ukraine-related sanctions), being able to offer Beijing only a convenient access to natural energy (oil and gas) and to conventional weapons (submarines, planes etc.). We might also guess that Russia has no capacity either to calm down Pyongyang, nor viable solutions in case of rising tensions in East Asia.
In China, president Xi Jinping is preparing for the CCP Congress from November and does not wish to send across the impression of being a weak leader, but does not – either – have any interest to stumble into an American-Korean clash before the congress that will allow him to continue the activity at the helm of the state and party. Russia will have its own presidential elections – the first row on 18th March 2018 – and, more than sure, Vladimir Putin does not even think about failing to preserve his leadership within the state. Therefore, we would wish to get involved in the Korean crisis only in extremis, if we saw that China firmly stands by Pyongyang’s side and if the latter would not be an aggressor, but a victim. Which is not the case at this moment.
Therefore, Kim Jong-un can continue his destabilizing actions unhindered – at least for a while – in a country which shall be depleted even more of its resources by the UN sanctions. The UN Security Council met just a few days ago, but there was no actual solution and it is hard to believe that the permanent members will miraculously pull out of the hat the rabbit that will bring peace and calm in Korea.
Șerban F. Cioculescu, researcher in the field of security studies at the Institute for Political Defense Studies and Military History from Bucharest and Lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Bucharest.
Original Source [Romanian]: Contributors.ro. English translation by DAVA | Strategic Analysis.
Photo credit: (stephan) | Flickr