Shadow Boxing in Pyongyang

Let’s face it: We don’t really know why North Korea decided to test a nuclear weapon last week, why it has suddenly declared the Korean War armistice of 1953 null and void, why it has launched several test missiles and is preparing to launch others. It could be because the North Koreans are dissatisfied with the state of negotiations with Washington and want more concessions or more attention. It could be that the regime — which is no longer capable of delivering regular food supplies, or even reliable electricity, to its people — wanted to strengthen its grip on power. It could be something else altogether. Personally, I favor another scenario, equally speculative: Perhaps the North Koreans have stepped up their war rhetoric, and their war preparations, because China wants them to do so. I cannot prove that this is the case — just as no one else can prove any of their theories about North Korea — but I can look at the evidence, which is as follows:

China is the one country that actually has influence over North Korea. Not only is China the only country to maintain frequent diplomatic and security contacts with North Korea, but China could, if it wanted to, topple the North Korean regime tomorrow. China could cut off North Korea’s oil. China could shut the border to trade. Or China could take the opposite tactic and open the border: Refugees would flee and the regime would crumble, much as East Germany did 20 years ago this summer. To put it differently, China has more influence over the North Korean regime than all of the other U.N. Security Council members put together, but it does not use this influence to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Instead, it has maintained trade relations, kept the oil flowing, built up its border fences and paid lip service to the international efforts to block the North Korean nuclear program (the Chinese claimed to have learned about the recent nuclear test an hour in advance, which no one believes), all while hunkering down to watch what happens.

China has ambitions to replace the United States as the dominant power in East Asia. For proof, look no further than the money the Chinese have spent lately on expanding their navy, which now includes at least 70 submarines, 10 of which are thought to be nuclear. By contrast, the United States has between 70 and 80 submarines deployed at any given moment, but they patrol the whole world, not just Asian waters. The Chinese are also now designing aircraft carriers and reportedly now have long-range, anti-ship ballistic missiles — the better to destroy our aircraft carriers — as well.

China knows the rest of Asia is watching this test of the Obama administration. And if, as seems likely, the Obama administration does not come up with a way to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, what conclusions will the South Koreans draw — not to mention the Japanese? Or the Taiwanese? Might some of them not conclude that the American security umbrella no longer seems quite as wide and strong as it used to? Might they not conclude that they are better off under Chinese protection? This would, of course, be a somewhat far-fetched and risky game, if the Chinese were indeed playing it: After all, the Japanese are not known to be enthusiastic about the prospect of Chinese domination, and the Taiwanese are not known to be interested in reunification with the mainland. Rather than falling in line, the Japanese might instead conclude that they need their own nuclear deterrent. The South Koreans might follow, the Taiwanese might add to their own mighty naval fleet, and then a deadly Asian arms race would be underway.

Despite the risks, though, there are good reasons for the Chinese to prod Kim Jong Il to keep those missiles coming. By permitting North Korea to rattle its sabers, the Chinese can monitor President Obama’s reaction to a military threat — without having to deploy a threat themselves. They can see how serious the new American administration is about controlling the spread of nuclear weapons — without having to risk sanctions or international condemnation of their own nuclear industry. They can distract and disturb the new administration — without harming Chinese American economic relations, which are crucial to their own regime’s stability. And if the game goes badly, they can call it off altogether. North Korea is a puppet state, and the Chinese are the puppeteers. They could end this farce tomorrow. If they haven’t done so yet, there must be a reason.

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