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    Greater China
     Jul 16, 2009
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 in 1989.

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, Italy.

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 youngest Kim.

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 Pyongyang.

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 expected.

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.

Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.

(Copyright 2009 Francesco Sisci.)


Pyongyang plans fourth of July fireworks (Jul 4,'09)

China's rogue regimes play up
(Jul 3,'09)

Obama lights North Korea's fuse
(Jun 18,'09)


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