China’s Frankenstein: ‘Rocket Man’
The successful test of the Hwasong-15 missile by North Korea has triggered several consequences, intended and unintended: First, Kim Jong Un has demonstrated the capability to potentially strike the US mainland with nuclear weapons. Second, the achievement has made the moniker of ‘Rocket Man’ (disparagingly used by US President Donald Trump) a reality. Third, North Korea has turned out to be China’s Frankenstein, much to the chagrin of Beijing. Finally, Kim’s actions, and the contradictory responses of Washington, have made the region an atomic powder keg waiting for a deliberate, inadvertent or accidental spark to blow it up.
The imbroglio over a nuclear armed and very dangerous North Korea, involving the US, China and South Korea, epitomizes this peril. The present crisis is only the latest manifestation of a long-drawn entanglement that can be traced back to the 1950 Korean War. The war, which ended in 1953 with an armistice, but not a peace treaty—the belligerents are legally still at war—lies at the root of today’s confrontation.
Following the Korean War, the two camps, unsurprisingly, had different objectives. These differences have endured, despite the Sino-US rapprochement in 1971-72 and the end of the Cold War, and have prevented a resolution of the nuclear challenges in Northeast Asia.
The US objectives were: first, to ensure that the entire Korean peninsula did not become part of the Sino-Soviet axis; second, to provide security to South Korea; and third, to ensure that the peninsula remained nuclear-weapon free. Consequently, the US signed a mutual defence treaty, deployed troops in South Korea, and provided a nuclear umbrella. Simultaneously, the US also ensured that South Korea remained faithful to its non-proliferation pledge.
The objectives of the Sino-Soviet bloc, particularly Beijing, were: first, to rebuff US efforts to unite Korea and ensure that a Communist North Korea remained as a buffer. Second, to inevitably accept the hereditary Communist set-up in North Korea and to ensure the survival of the regime. Third, to prevent nuclear proliferation on the peninsula as long as it served the first two objectives. Indeed, proliferation was tolerated as it was seen to support the key objectives.
Consequently, North Korea signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with both the Soviet Union and China in July 1961. Both treaties called for military assistance in case of an attack and provided a nuclear umbrella to North Korea. After the Cold War, Russia refused to renew its treaty, which lapsed in 1995. However, China and North Korea renewed their treaty in 2001 for another 20 years till 2021. The renewal notwithstanding, Pyongyang had already initiated its nuclear weapons programme, declared its intent to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (in 1993), withdrawn formally in 2003, and tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006. Since then, North Korea has conducted six tests, the latest one in September 2017. Today, all that stands between North Korea becoming a nuclear armed state is a re-entry vehicle that would allow the missile’s warhead to return to earth intact.
North Korea’s reasons for pursuing a nuclear deterrent programme were primarily driven by two factors. First, Pyongyang’s perception that in the post-Cold War “unipolar” era, the US was committed to a policy of overthrowing dictatorial regimes, especially when these regimes did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or gave up their programmes. This notion was strengthened following the so-called 2003 “preventive” war against Iraq’s alleged WMD programme, and the 2011 UN-mandated intervention led by US allies in Libya, which resulted in the toppling of the Muammar Gaddafi regime after it had surrendered its WMD programme. Second, Beijing shared the regime preservation concerns of Pyongyang’s hereditary leadership as serving China’s crucial geopolitical goals in Northeast Asia. To this end, China likely supported North Korea’s nuclear quest through acts of commission and omission. In doing so, Beijing has created a nuclear Frankenstein.
While China’s support of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions might be a form of extended deterrence, it poses graver consequences both for the non-proliferation regime as well as nuclear stability in Northeast Asia. For instance, Beijing’s ability to manage its truculent neighbour is being severely tested. On several occasions—such as during the ninth Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Xiamen when North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test—Pyongyang has dented China’s reputation as a global leader. Similarly, Pyongyang’s antics have provided the rationale for Washington to deploy missile defence systems, which, much to Beijing’s chagrin, also have the ability to potentially counter China’s deterrence capabilities.
Unsurprisingly, every effort involving China to stop North Korea’s determined march towards building its nuclear arsenal has failed, including the Six Party Talks (discontinued in 2009) and the plethora of UN Security Council sanctions. None of the present options—use of force, sanctions, or diplomacy—are likely to work. The only way to deal with the situation is to also resolve the geopolitical contestation that lingers on from the unfinished war of 1950. This would require the US, China and, perhaps, Russia, along with North and South Korea, to formalize the status quo with a formal treaty. That might still not be enough for the North to give up its nuclear arsenal but it might just prevent a nuclear exchange.
W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.