North Korea’s basic foreign policy aim since 1953 has been to maximize division between the countries that surround it, while also trying to extort as much free help as it can from ‘allies,’ rivals, and enemies alike.
This extortion racket worked quite well throughout the Cold War, as Kim Il Sung conspicuously refused to pick sides in the Sino-Soviet split, and has worked reasonably well since 2008, as China and America have been unable to agree on what to do about the North Korean issue.
There have been periods when Pyongyang has been less fortunate. After the collapse of the USSR, aid from Russia was not forthcoming, and the Chinese suddenly became less interested in bankrolling Pyongyang’s survival. There have also been times when it was not really necessary, especially during the Sunshine era under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun when the U.S., China, and South Korea all threw plenty of sugar North Korea’s way – with breaks during periods surrounding the nuclear tests and in the early part of the Bush administration.
President Obama and, as yet, President Trump have proved less willing to deal with the North. Comrade Xi also has been less tactful in his disgust for the North and more willing to show the current Kim that he does not take kindly to nuclear brinkmanship and missile tests, but ultimately has been unwilling to do what America wants: clobber the North with sanctions that would send its economy into a tailspin.
Obviously, the Chinese are not stupid, they have their reasons, namely that such sanctions could start a shockwave in North Korea resulting in the collapse of a nuclear power and instability spreading across Northeast Asia. This logic is what has kept the Chinese from pulling the plug, and the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) has given them yet less reason to coordinate with the Americans on the North Korean issue.
First THAAD components are deployed to the Republic of Korea on March 6, 2017
Here’s why: let’s not kid ourselves, the Chinese are on to something with THAAD. The radar claims sound plausible, and what’s more, once an asset is deployed it sets a precedent. And if and when THAAD can be upgraded and synched with other missile defense assets that may be deployed in future, it could give the United States a first-strike capability against their main strategic rival in the world. The Chinese are not stupid, they understand this, and they do not want THAAD to be allowed to set a precedent.
First THAAD in South Korea, then THAAD for Taiwan too: aimed at China this time. Then THAAD’s capabilities get an upgrade and join a general missile defense shield starting in the American west and ending in the Indian Ocean. Farfetched from a U.S. policy standpoint perhaps – the science is not there yet – but certainly a fear in Beijing, nonetheless.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the Chinese are on to something with THAAD
And not just paranoia. We do not know what engineers working for U.S. defense contractors will develop in future, the U.S. defense industry is the best in the world and ‘accelerating technological change’ is a buzzword of our time. This is why they are moving to sanction South Korea.
This is very good news for North Korea: it alienates South Korea from China and further alienates the Washington from Beijing, making it yet less likely they will be ready to coordinate if and when North Korea decides to engage in further nuclear testing to further develop an already fast improving nuclear deterrent.
It might seem counter-intuitive that THAAD, a system being deployed primarily to protect South Korea from North Korean short-range ballistic missiles, would be good for North Korea, but the fact that it deepens animosity between Beijing and Washington gives North Korea more leeway to provoke and toy with South Korea.
Provocations on the border will be less loudly condemned in Beijing, missile and nuclear tests can be used by Pyongyang to try and make South Koreans vote for more liberal, less hawkish leaders in Seoul willing to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Zone and Kumgang Tours.
It gives North Korean policy makers more freedom of maneuver in their diplomacy, which surely must be a welcome change for Pyongyang given the recent frostiness in relations with Beijing over the last four years.
The Trump administration is seriously considering strikes to prevent North Korea from getting a nuclear ICBM potential. Strikes could easily set off a chain reaction that would destroy much of Seoul and lead to the end of North Korea.
South Korea, Washington, and Beijing are all aware of this danger. Yet fears in Washington of a potentially nuclear ICBM armed Pyongyang prepared to proliferate and even attempt the unthinkable: nuclear extortion of the U.S. mainland (possibly using nuclear submarines), may make Trump decide to take the risk and hit North Korean facilities.
Beijing may be inclined to take Pyongyang’s side in such a confrontation, and secretly give them prior warning of potential strikes, allowing for nuclear and missile assets (as well as ‘leadership assets’) to be further secured. Yet another reason why the North Koreans should be pleased that they may soon be losing the ability to launch short-range missiles at Seoul.
This is very good news for North Korea: it alienates South Korea from China and further alienates the Washington from Beijing
THAAD’s deployment weakens Beijing. Why is this good for Pyongyang? Simple: China is a highly reluctant supporter of Pyongyang. They hate its nuclear program, xenophobic economic nationalism, and its dangerous behavior. But Beijing wants stability and prosperity in its backyard, not the threat of nuclear assets getting into the hands of rogue generals, a generalized war, or a massive refugee outflow into one of the most economically distressed parts of China.
Pyongyang’s diplomatic games are blatantly offensive to Beijing, which would very much like to replace North Korea’s leadership with a more Sinophilic and enlightened crowd who will do what they are told by their superiors in the Middle Kingdom.
However, with such a naked power play by the United States in the form of THAAD, Beijing senses that it may soon be surrounded by missile defenses aimed at forcing its de facto surrender to U.S. hegemony in the region. It is caught between a rock and a hard place, and it dare not push South Korea too hard for fear of scaring other neighboring countries into the arms of the United States.
Yet it cannot just sit there and accept THAAD. Beijing’s weakened position equals advantage Pyongyang. The Chinese will be more inclined to accept more of the young Kim’s diplomatic posturing and be more willing to throw more good money after bad into investments (often de facto aid) to the North Korean economy. Let’s be hones: the deployment of THAAD is great for North Korea.
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