The Case for Pressure on China
North Korea. Possibly the most volatile and dangerous situation on planet Earth. A nuclear armed dictator who starves his owns citizens and puts them in labor camps owns nuclear weapons. These nuclear weapons are within only a few hundred miles of the largest city on Earth: Tokyo, the capital of the largest and one of the most powerful countries on Earth: Beijing, and within sneezing distance of the financial capital of Asia: Seoul.
North Korea has been a continuous problem since 1950, when its troops crossed the 38th parallel and entered South Korea. They pushed the borders of a sovereign nation all the way to the southeastern tip: Busan. It was only then, that, in an official UN police action, a US led coalition intervened, crushing the North Koreans and beating them back to the Yalu River. The Chinese then intervened, pushing the UN coalition back to the 38th parallel, resulting in the current situation.
In 1994, the Bill Clinton administration attempted to halt the North Korean nuclear weapons program in exchange for famine aid. This deal failed. While the US held up its end, North Korea resumed development of nuclear weapons, allegedly testing its first nuclear device in 2006. Since then, North Korea has continually provoked the United States. The North has even attacked South Korea directly, including the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010.
The latest wave of provocations comes during a highly unpredictable time in US foreign policy. Just a week ago, the Trump administration claimed it was sending a Carrier strike group to the Korean peninsula. In reality, the carrier was in Indonesia, conducting military exercises, and is only now heading to Korea. North Korea, meanwhile, has launched a missile into the sea of Japan, and continues to threaten nuclear action against the United States.
North Korea is a dangerous state: that much is clear. One mis-slip, or one bad day for Kim Jong Un, could result in nuclear missiles flying, and millions of deaths. North Korea treats its own population of 24 million like garbage, putting political prisoners into forced labor camps, starving millions of people to death by refusing to trade with “American Imperialists” . North Korea is indirectly allowing China to continue its island building in the South China sea: China certainly does not want to see a united, US backed Korea on its border, which, from Beijing’s point of view, would be detrimental to Chinese interests in the Korean Peninsula..
This leads into the two main deterrents against United States military action. The first, obviously, being nuclear weapons. North Korean nuclear weapons are in the vicinity of massive population centers. North Korean nuclear capabilities are entirely uncertain, although it is reasonable to assume that they can strike at nearly all of Japan and South Korea. North Korean ICBMs that can hit the United States (which are in development) would be even deadlier. The second deterrent is the massive amount of artillery the North has on its border with South Korea. Seoul is within 35 miles of the DMZ, within range of many of the 10,000 artillery pieces on the mountains near the DMZ. This means that even in a non-nuclear war, North Korea could destroy significant chunks of the 16th largest city on Earth, with a population of 10 million people.
Another major deterrent that is faced is China. China, while seeming to have hardened its tone on the DPRK, has huge interests in leaving the North intact as a buffer zone against South Korea. The last thing that any international leader wants to see is a 2nd Korean war escalate into World War 3, with the two leading superpowers (China and the US) in direct conflict with each other. Thankfully, Chinese economic interests are very powerful as well. The United States is China’s largest trading partner, and this seems unlikely to change. However, China would likely sanction the United States in the event of a pre-emptive strike, which would damage the US Economy, as well as destabilize the Asia-Pacific region.
Unfortunately, it also appears that using American might is necessary in the event that North Korea does not cease threatening the stability of the globe. There are many options on the table. Let us examine each one in detail.
The first possibility is a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. This would not be a small affair. Rather, it would be missiles and bombers targeting North Korean artillery on the DMZ, missiles striking at North Korean radars and nuclear missile silos, and a possible strike on Pyongyang. This would utterly destroy the North Korean chain of command. It would also result in millions of North Korean troops surging across the border, as they realize what has happened. The North Koreans are hyper nationalistic, especially after 50 years of propaganda and misinformation. This would result in South Korea being utterly destroyed, and a rapid deterioration of US-China relations. A pre-emptive strike, as the Vox noted, would be disastrous.
Any major military action against the North has to fulfill one condition: the compliance of Beijing and Xi Jinping. Without this condition, China will undoubtedly restrict trade with the United States, damaging our economy. If necessary, China will intervene to keep some sort of buffer between it and South Korea, as well as avoid a refugee crisis. A united Korea that is NATO aligned would be damaging to Chinese interests. However, there are potential solutions that avert a refugee crisis, a United Korea, and could end North Korean nuclear weapons.
The first steps involve destabilizing North Korea-and the route to doing this runs through China. China fears a united Korea, but it also fears millions of refugees flooding into Northern China-starving, disillusioned peasants who have only known the godly status of the Kim dynasty. However, China also appears to dislike North Korean nuclear weapons, and China is rightfully scared of the North. China’s biggest fear, however, has nothing to do with North Korea. China does not want to see nuclear tipped, ballistic missiles, under the possession of the US government, in Japan or South Korea. The thought of nuclear weapons so close to China is justly a terrifying thought to Beijing.
The United States essentially needs to negotiate with China, while keeping the “Nukes in Japan option” right on the table. A threat to put nuclear weapons in Japan if the Chinese do not place an oil embargo on the North Korean regime (until North Korea destroys every nuclear weapon it owns, under Chinese supervision, and ceases attacking South Korea), for example, would likely get China to move. In exchange, the United States can open up a new free trade deal with China (Free Trade, contrary to populist belief, does not suck jobs out of one country and place them in another country). The North Korean regime would have to choose between economic destruction and their nuclear weapons program. If North Korea cuts back on its nuclear program, stability can be maintained in Asia, and North Korea may even possibly open up to the west.
On the other hand, if North Korea attempts to hold onto its nuclear weapons, it will collapse into anarchy within a few months. After the Kim regime collapses, China can surge in and seize power, thus saving itself from having a US influenced united Korea on the border, and not having to deal with refugees flooding in.
While unconventional, this plan nearly guarantees Chinese toughness on North Korea that goes beyond pure rhetoric. Even the coal ban that China imposed will have little to no effect on Pyongyang. This plan also makes sense given the current political climate-the Trump administration has not fulfilled many major promises as of now, but ramping up pressure on China is “being tough on China”, which could earn Trump some credibility and influence, especially after a chaotic first 100 days.
Right now is the right time for action. It's time to finally deal with a crisis that has destabilized the entire Asia-Pacific region. We need to drastically rethink our policy on North Korea and pressure Beijing into action. We need to threaten placing nuclear weapons in Japan and increase pressure on China, or we risk either starting another Korean War or sitting idle as North Korea improves nuclear capabilities.