SINOGRAPH China, please invade North Korea By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - In 1979, China waged war against Vietnam with America's blessing. It
proved to Washington - with actions, not just words - that Beijing was on the
right side in the grand clash of the Cold War.
It also served to check Vietnam's ambitions in Southeast Asia, as Hanoi had
recently invaded Cambodia, toppling the regime there, which was notorious for
its domestic atrocities but anti-Vietnamese in its foreign policy. In return,
Beijing received from the United States and its allies a growing windfall of
technology and investment that triggered and fueled its development - and
that didn't stop even after the Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protesters
Vietnam did not believe the Chinese threats, it misjudged the political
situation, and although militarily it fought valiantly against America and
China, it lost politically against both, as its economy still lags behind those
of other Southeast Asian countries.
The political legacy is a lingering hatred in Vietnam, which still, 30 years
after, has troubled bilateral ties with Beijing. However, it is uncertain
whether even without the war, relations would be any better, given the
centuries of animosity between China and Vietnam.
This experience could be something to consider as on July 4, American
Independence Day, North Korea, in defiance of United Nations sanctions and all
warnings from the international community, fired a salvo of ballistic missiles,
politically aimed at America and at the Group of Eight summit in l'Aquila,
The missiles could prove that Chinese efforts in mediation with North Korea
over its nuclear program have miserably failed. In June, the Japanese press
reported that the heir apparent to the North Korean "throne", 26-year-old Kim
Jong-un, was in China for a week meeting with top leaders. The story was not
denied in Beijing and despite questions about its accuracy, it demonstrated
Beijing's efforts in trying to accommodate Pyongyang and its ailing leader Kim
Jong-il, allegedly concerned about his succession.
Beijing appears willing to accept the accession of the youngest Kim in return
for a new start to the six-party talks on North Korea's disarmament. The
stalled talks include the two Koreas, the US, Russia, Japan and China.
The stumbling block here has for months been North Korea's program of
uranium-enrichment. Pyongyang has admitted to its plutonium program, and seemed
willing to forfeit it, but it has denied even having a uranium program. For
Pyongyang, this is a matter of trust. Without nuclear weapons, Pyongyang fears
it could be attacked at any time. Only its nuclear capabilities - it has tested
a bomb twice - prevents America from doing to North Korea what it has done to
Iraq - the invasion of 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein. Nuclear capabilities are
ultimately a guarantee for the regime and for handing over power to the
In China, people thought there was still room to maneuver: Beijing would assure
Kim, and as a result Pyongyang could do without its nuclear security umbrella.
The July 4 missiles are either the last act of Pyongyang's public defiance
before meekly returning to the six-party talks, or Pyongyang's statement of
deep distrust of Beijing.
Within a few weeks or even days, the reasons will be clear. In any event, the
2009 North Korean offensive and the outcome of the Iranian elections that
returned President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to power have changed the political goal
posts in North Korea. Iran has a nuclear program - many suspect with the aim of
building a bomb - and condoning and abetting the North Koreans will simply
encourage the Iranians if this is indeed their goal.
The disputed June elections, which the opposition claims were rigged, have left
Iran extremely fragile, and there is a perception that Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei no longer commands total authority. The massive street
demonstrations following the vote prove that some people in Iran believe more
in popular emotions than in religious commands. In this situation, the
stability of Iran is at stake, and its destabilization could further complicate
matters in neighboring Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even in China's restive
Xinjiang region. After all, the wave of Muslim fundamentalism started in Iran
some 30 years ago.
The point is, one cannot credibly try to stop Iran's nuclear program while
turning a blind eye to North Korea. Iran is far more delicate and dangerous to
tinker with. North Korea must accept American conditions and de facto - let's
call it by its name - surrender. Otherwise, the risks will spread beyond its
region to the Middle East.
For North Korea's "surrender", China will have to exert pressure on Pyongyang,
but as this would dangerously change the whole balance of power in the region
(see Pyongyang better
left to its devices Asia Times Online, June 4, 2009), China would need
broad and robust guarantees from America.
If Pyongyang does return to the six-party talks, things are likely, as they
have ion the past, move slowly, and so could US-China strategic dialogue. If
Pyongyang doesn't return, a push could be necessary, and the strategic dialogue
would need speeding up.
Many things have changed since the Vietnam experience of 30 years ago, but one
thing has remained constant and actually increased - the need for broad
US-China cooperation. North Korea has been a milestone in this cooperation, and
now it could turn into the stepping stone to move things to a higher level. If
China has to put pressure on Pyongyang, America will have to guarantee that
Seoul, holder of strong nationalistic pan-Korean feelings, will not turn
against it. Japan will also have to go along with it. This will have to follow
a broad political and strategic agreement with America. With all this strong
support, it is conceivable that China could have a military confrontation with
These ideas are not new in China. Years ago, the policy journal Strategy and
Management was closed because it published an article advocating a Chinese
invasion of North Korea. Allegedly, Kim Jong-il personally asked China to shut
down the journal. Now, more than ever, that option could be considered,
provided America pledges a quantum leap in political ties with Beijing for the
next 30 years, as it did with China's Vietnam invasion. Militarily, it need not
be a full-fledged invasion, or it could just be growing economic pressure to
bring Kim back to the six-party talks.
In this case, Kim, in his meandering and paranoid political calculations, will
have to consider: is he willing to be the sacrificial lamb, blessing with his
blood a new US-China partnership? The fact is, he could achieve more by giving
up his arms than by sticking with them. But to achieve this, he first has to
give up his paranoia, and perhaps that is impossible for him. If his
misperceptions linger, the US and China could be brought closer than they
This is especially true, given reports about Kim's health. According to the
latest one from South Korea, Kim has pancreatic cancer that soon could relieve
us of his presence, which could result in a vicious power struggle between
those generals for or against the young Kim. It might be tempting to wait for
this scenario to play out.
Yet, the report could be just another trial balloon in the long series of
provocations and falsities spread by Pyongyang to mislead its enemies. It would
be better to stop waiting and take action now, for the region, for Iran, and
even for Xinjiang.