Korea, wrote the famed German expert on geopolitics Baron Haushofer a century ago, was one of the world’s five most strategic areas. So it remains today, as China, Russia, Japan and the United States vie for influence on the peninsula and the waters around it.
The latest crisis over Korea began in March with an annual major military exercise by the US and South Korea designed to simulate an invasion of North Korea. The flight of US B-52 and B-2 heavy bombers 30 km from North Korea’s border was a clear warning to North Korea to cease its nuclear program.
Instead of the usual fulminations against the US and South Korea, the new North Korean dynastic regime of Kim Jung-un issue a blizzard of war threats that included nuclear strikes against the US – something that Pyongyang is quite unable to do. But the storm of hot air raised the danger of an accidental military clash that could quickly escalate to all-out war in which tactical nuclear weapons might well be used.
Until this past week, the Korea crisis has been more or less run by the US Pentagon. Amazingly, South Korea’s tough 600,000-man armed forces are under the command of a US four-star general 60 years after the end of the Korean War, backed up by 28,500 US troops that include a full heavy infantry division,
North Korea calls itself the “true Korea,” denouncing the South as “puppets of the US imperialists.” Interestingly, some studies show that many South Koreans share this view and are proud of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program though they want no part of its socialism and self-reliant policy know as “juche.”
Now, the US has finally deployed its diplomatic muscle by sending the new Secretary of State John Kerry to Beijing to try to arm-twist China into clamping down on its errant bad boy, North Korea. The result was a joint communiqué calling on the US and China to jointly pursue the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
China has long advocated this policy, so nothing new here. But the North American media hailed it as a breakthrough in the crisis. In fact, China is not happy with North Korea’s nuclear program, but Beijing considers an independent, stable North Korea essential for the security of its highly sensitive northeast region of Machuria.
Chinese strategists fear the collapse of the Kim dynasty in North Korea would lead to the US-dominated South Korea absorbing the north and even implanting US bases within range of Manchuria and the maritime approaches to Beijing. In 1950, China responded to the advance of US forces onto its Manchurian border, the Yalu River, by intervening in the Korean War with over 1.5 million soldiers.
The collapse of North Korea would also move South Korean and US military power 200 km closer to Russia’s key Far Eastern population and military complex at Vladivostok.
Accordingly, China’s strategy to date has been to talk moderation and issue occasional blasts at North Korea to appease the outside world and its major American trading partner while quietly ensuring that North Korea remains viable. China supplies all of North Korea’s oil, part of its food, and large amounts of industrial and military spare parts.
North Korea’s Kim Jung-un appears to have climbed too far out on a limb by issuing dire threats that include nuclear war. His problem is to climb back without losing too much face or appearing to be forced by the United States.
Prestige is a key factor in dictatorship. An obvious defeat can lead to the dictator’s fall. That’s why Hitler refused to retreat from the deathtrap at Stalingrad, rightly fearing such a loss of prestige and his mystique of military genius would encourage his domestic foes to move against him.
So Kim will likely need Beijing’s help in ending the crisis, and Beijing will be both happy to do so and end up in a position to demand useful concessions from Washington.
Beijing has been claiming that the US whipped up the current Korea crisis to justify deploying new military forces to Asia and emplacing more anti-missile systems in Alaska and a new one in Guam – all part of President Barack Obama’s much heralded “pivot to Asia.”