An Unfortunate Revelation on Securing North Korean Nukes

Specialists on North Korea have cited many reasons over the years for why China cannot be relied on to stop the DPRK from continuing its nuclear and missile buildup. The reasons are by now quite familiar, and have mostly to do with China’s fear that pressuring Kim Jong-un’s regime will destabilize it and produce a chaotic situation adverse to China’s security interests. Yet US administrations have consistently proposed that China is the key to resolving the standoff with North Korea – that if only Beijing would exploit its economic and political leverage with Pyongyang, Kim will be forced to knuckle under.

Today’s news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had, perhaps unintentionally, revealed ongoing US efforts to coordinate with China on the removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of a political collapse in Pyongyang further undermines the notion that China has usable leverage. North Korean experts read the newspapers! They have surely known for a long time – and today’s news only reinforces it – about US-China consultations on North Korean nukes. Now Tillerson has confirmed them, saying "We’ve had conversations with the Chinese about how that [removing the nukes] might be done." US sources may say that their Chinese counterparts have resisted reaching an agreement that would avoid a clash should both armies move into North Korea in the wake of a collapse. But the North Koreans have no reason to believe that, and every reason to think this is further evidence of Chinese-American collusion to undermine their regime and occupy their country.

To be sure, if the day ever comes when the Kim dynasty implodes, securing nuclear weapons will be important, and ensuring against a clash between Chinese and US forces will be essential. But raising these matters in public could not come at a worse time, for it only confirms the North Koreans in the view that regime change is a common subject of discussion between Washington and Beijing. Their suspicions can only further undermine what little remains of Tillerson’s idea of direct US-DPRK talks without preconditions – and give North Korea’s hawks more reason to push for completing work on nuclear-tipped ICBMs.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is professor emeritus of political science at Portland State University, and editor-in-chief of Asian Perspective. His most recent book isWill This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View(Lynne Rienner, 2013).

  • richardstevenhack

    What I expect to happen is the US will attack North Korea at some point in some fashion – whether “regime decapitation” (which won’t work – they tried 17 times in Iraq to kill Saddam), or “nuclear decapitation/seizure” (which won’t work and will start a full-blown war), or a regime change ground invasion which will certainly bring the Chinese into the war if it looks like NK is losing. And it’s quite possible the US/SK could lose that war all on their own.

    However, if China does enter the war, I do expect them to quietly remove Kim from power or at least sideline him in the NK apparatus and get the new political power in NK to give up nukes in exchange for assistance from China economically (as well as personal bribes) and assistance from China in getting negotiations with the US for normalized relations.

    China doesn’t want the US in North Korea or a reunifed Korea under US control with US military bases and missile sites on their borders. But they’d prefer not to have nukes in NK as well. They want the previous status quo to remain (and preferably get better vis-a-vis the US/NK relations.)

    As I’ve said before, China doesn’t need to engage US/SK forces in NK directly. They can simply dump scores of thousands of troops and materiel into NK and set up a defensive line to prevent further US/SK advance. Since neither side wants WWIII, this will force a new armistice and eventual US/SK withdrawal back to the 38th Parallel.

    China can also threaten Taiwan as an asymmetric response to a US/SK invasion of NK. I doubt China would actually invade Taiwan, but they could certainly up the ante and the recent increase in Chinese anger over Taiwan serves as a warning to US war planners about NK.

    But a hell of a lot of people will die before it gets to that point.

    • Eddy

      Again, what fantasy land are you living in ???? China will NEVER, I repeat, NEVER allow Americans to build military bases directly on it’s borders. Believing otherwise, is pure self delusion. It would seem too, that China’s statement, ” that IF N.K. is attacked, China will come to the assistance of N.K.” seems to be willfully ignored and never mentioned. I wonder why not.

      • “China will NEVER, I repeat, NEVER allow Americans to build military bases directly on its borders”

        I guess nobody has told them that the Americans have bases in neighboring Afghanistan?

        • richardstevenhack

          Eventually the Afghans will make sure the US doesn’t.

        • Anti-Empire

          This is technically correct. Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor Nature Refuge, connected by a neck of land to the rest of Afghanistan, has its eastern border on China’s Xinjiang Region.
          But that is quite a different matter from the extensive NK border with China not far from Beijing, Qingdao and other important centers of Chinese power.
          And historically the Chinese have felt that “the peninsula” was a way for the West to assault China, with Mao very, very concerned about it. NK, unlike landlocked Afghanistan, is accessible by sea and hence a great launching pad for a land war against China. And then there is the little matter of the US sending troops right to the NK-Chinese border in the near genocidal war on NK by the West in the 1950s.
          Suffice it to say, that no Western puppet regime will be put in place in NK if China can help it. That is not wild speculation – that is grounded in geographical and historical fact.
          To compare NK to Afghanistan is absurd.

          • I was taking the claim as written. The fact is that China has a hostile US and US-allied military presence to its immediate west — “directly on its borders.” I agree that North Korea is a special case in which they would not tolerate e.g. a US base on the Yalu.

            That’s why, if there is a US war on North Korea, it will not include a US ground invasion extending north of the DMZ area, and that’s why the war will end with Chinese “peacekeepers” entering the north with full US agreement after the US has liquidated the North’s political regime and destroyed its military ability to function as an offensive fighting force. China will in fact end up with a large US military presence “directly on its border” — because North Korea will become a de facto province of China.

        • I love geography by the spoonful.

      • richardstevenhack

        I said that.

  • Eddy

    W.T.F. ???? Is this for real ????? Claims of American-Chinese collusion against N.K. ?????????????
    How stupid do Americans think, the Chinese are ???? Are the people who write this rubbish, even aware of where China is in relation to N.K. ???
    Are Americans even aware, N.K. and China share a border ???????
    In what fantasy land do Americans live, who believe China is willing to abet Americans to bring N.K. to it’s knees and thus allow American military bases right on China’s borders ???????????
    Totally amazing, the rubbish some people print and call news.

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