Of all the misconceptions in the American media about the grave nuclear weapons showdown that has erupted in the most remote corner of Northeast Asia, one of the biggest is this: that North Korea is geo-politically isolated and vulnerable. It is not. As William Safire noted in Thursday's New York Times: "Communist China is the only nation with diplomatic, economic and military influence over Communist North Korea."
However, Safire then went on to argue, "China cannot stand aloof from its obligation to restrain its starving ally without losing its claim to hegemony in Asia."
But very few, if any, serious analysts in Asia believe that argument will sway Beijing. They know the opposite is the case. An armed-to-the-teeth, unpredictable and even nuclear-capable North Korea will never be a threat to China, despite Safire's nightmare scenario "if Pyongyang gained the ability to take out a hundred Chinese cities with nuclear missiles." To Chinese leaders, this kind of argument is ridiculous science-fiction, East Asian experts say.
South Korean intelligence analysts and top policy-makers have no doubt that China is committed to the survival of North Korea as a major national security priority, according to well-placed East Asian intelligence sources.
This is in part because, these sources say, the Chinese are convinced that any collapse of the North Korean state would unleash waves of multiple millions of desperate refugees fleeing northeast into China's Manchuria region as well as south into South Korea. China's rural north is already plagued with scores of millions unemployed or underemployed, widespread destitution and economic uncertainty. The last thing Beijing wants or needs is an enormous refugee crisis as well.
Last year, about 300,000 North Koreans fled their homeland for China, where they live in fear of being turned in to authorities and repatriated. The Chinese government considers the refugees "economic migrants," though human-rights experts say that Beijing is violating an international convention on the treatment of refugees by forcing North Koreans to go back to their homeland. Those who are repatriated may face execution.
But there are other, even more pressing reasons why China is determined to prop up North Korea. Pyongyang has proved an invaluable buffer to protect Mainland China from the contagion of democracy and a free press in neighboring South Korea and China. And since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre and the collapse of the Soviet Union that started so soon afterward, China's communist leaders have been united in a single fear. They believe that unleashing the same potent freedoms in their country that the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, did would lead to the same result -- national disintegration and appalling mass misery.
North Korea, the most isolated, hermetic and repressive state in the world is also arguably the most poverty-stricken, with 2 million of its 25 million or so people having starved to death in the past decade. As such, it provides China with ideal insulation to prevent its people being attracted by the freedom, free press, democracy and prosperity of South Korea.
Also, as long as South Korea remains a staunch U.S. ally, East Asian analysts say China wants North Korea to maintain its overwhelming conventional military superiority over the South.
Ironically, South Korea and China have enjoyed strong trade ties and excellent diplomatic relations over the past decade. South Korea does not threaten China, and the Chinese know it. Seoul is now a huge source of direct investment in China. And Beijing knows the South Koreans share their historic traumatic memories and continuing fears about a possible future assertive Japan.
The Chinese are, rather, fearful of U.S. influence being used to boost independence movements in Tibet and even, though to a lesser degree, among their restive Muslim Uighurs in giant Xinjiang province in Central Asia. Keeping North Korea not just existing but a potent threat to both South Korea and Japan -- and also to the 37,000 U.S. troops permanently based in the South -- gives China a powerful deterrent card to play against any future U.S. intervention in those areas.
For as long as North Korea has the power to threaten South Korea and Japan with its weapon of mass destruction, the Chinese calculate Seoul and Tokyo will have to look to them as the one power that can effectively restrain Pyongyang, some of the East Asian sources said.
North Korea has also over the past decade served as an invaluable ally to China by spreading weapons of mass destruction technology to nations that China wants to see supplied with it. This is certainly the case with Iran and Pakistan, both of whom have received missile technology know-how from Pyongyang. And even nuclear cooperation between these nations appears likely. China has a played a huge role in Pakistan's missile and nuclear programs, Indian intelligence analysts believe.
Underlying these parallels and mutually supporting policies between Beijing and Pyongyang is a hard geopolitical reality. China's leaders have come to believe that the United States, especially when it is dominated by the confident aggressive hawks now shaping U.S. national security strategy is China's main global adversary.
Finally, the Chinese appear convinced that they are heading on a collision course that could involve a major, non-nuclear conventional air-sea war with the United States at some point over Taiwan. Over the past decade, China has remorselessly built up arguably the greatest concentration of land-to-sea and land-to-air missile deployments in the world in a bid to deny U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier battle groups control of the Taiwan Strait in the event of war. The huge scale of the build up and the large proportion of China's defense spending that it requires suggests to many U.S. naval analysts that it is not at all bluff.
But if any war should threaten between the United States and China over Taiwan, having an armed-to-the-teeth North Korea ready to pounce on South Korea and even Japan would be a powerful Chinese deterrent to U.S. action. At the very least it might well help dissuade some future Japanese government from allowing U.S. forces the use of their huge air and sea bases on Okinawa.
Therefore, any dream that China will pull America's chestnuts out of the fire on the North Korean nuclear standoff appears to be no more than wishful thinking. For China was the power that threw those chestnuts onto the fire in the first place.
(The third in a five-part series that looks at the dispute between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear program. Next: Life in Pyongyang's paradise.)
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