What is China’s Role in the Korean Reunification Charade?

No sooner did Kim Jung Un cross over into DMZ to sign a reunification and denuclearization agreement with South Korea’s President Moon that conservatives and progressives alike started hailing this development as historic and touted the idea of a Nobel Peace Prize for Kim Jung Un and the US President Donald Trump.

This development comes in light of joint Korean participation in the Olympics, and following Kim Jung Un’s visit to China and the newly confirmed Secretary of State Pompeo’s secret trip to North Korea, where he met and shook hands with Kim and various high level officials. These developments drew concern from the skeptics who note North Korea’s long history of bait-and-switch: multiple joint resolutions with South Korea, promises to dismantle its nuclear program, which, after some concessions from the West, ultimately did not materialize into anything concrete. The concerns are wide-ranging.

Some note that it is far more profitable for the Kims to make money off South Korea, rather than remain in isolation. Making a few grand gestures to gain international legitimacy and then make good on the economic liberalization would be just one pragmatic outcome. If that is what North Korea is counting on, she may very well succeed. The tightening sanctions may have driven them to the table, but ultimately if the sanctions are lifted and North Korea is allowed to benefit from international goodwill before showing evidence of actually dismantling its program, this “historic” event will ultimately end up being a major failure for the West. Reimposing the sanctions will take time, while North Korea, repeating the actions that Iran has done since the implementation of JCPOA, will benefit financially and will likely use the humanitarian aid to enrich the personal coffers of the leadership, while lending support to Iran, and spending more on espionage, cyberattacks, and clandestine nuclear research and other advanced weapons development.

Indeed, even as the meeting between the two leaders drew applause, analysts have discovered that the March 2018 hack of Turkish banks by North Korea, was wider in scope than previously known and targeted other countries, such as the US and Australia. One might wonder why North Korea needs to engage in data theft of foreign financial institutions as it seeks legitimacy and return to the international markets. Likewise, others have noted that Kim’s proposal of denuclearization may very well be a time-wasting to trick to account for the deterioration in the physical conditions of the nuclear site, which rendered it all but unusable.

If Kim is merely being opportunistic, he is about to win a temporary respite while rebuilding his capabilities away from the world’s attention. Those who are comparing Kim’s concerns about denuclearizing in light of the fate of Libya’s dictator Qaddafi, who was killed once he gave up his nuclear weapons should also be looking at JCPOA, which taught Kim that it’s impossible and important to try to milk two cows before the world catches on. Indeed, Twitter fights with the US president can only take Kim only so far; pretending to get along with South Korea and the US, grants him high level meetings, possibly even with Trump himself, endless stream of propaganda in the news (even as Otto Warmbier’s tortured death remains unpunished and three other Americans are languishing in North Korean prisons), and access to various perks.

Indeed, South Korea’s reaction at Kim’s outreach has been passive and submissive. There were no questions asked, no demands put forward.  South Korea has agreed to end the war without inquiring in to the fate of all the people enslaved in Kim’s camps. It also has not asked for guarantees of denuclearization or good behavior. The path to reunification remains largely rhetorical; however, the threat of Kim using this occasion to force US troops out of South Korea, thus ensuring a potentially speedy takeover at some point in time when its missiles reach the appropriate capabilities remains real.

Indeed, while the analysts and the media assumed that Kim either caved in to international pressure, such as increasing sanctions, or to President Trump’s threats on Twitter, in actuality Kim was in no serious danger at any time, and as far as we know, for him and the elites inside North Korea, despite sanctions, business and life were going on as usual. There is little room to doubt that his impunity was largely backed by China, who went along with the current ruse, in order to stave off the angry reaction from the US, while appearing to score points and legitimacy as a power broker who can can “control” Kim. That is a dangerous impression for it scores China points as the entity partially responsible for the thawing in relations – and gives China an opening to make further demands.

There is another angle to the current rapprochement: North Korea gets to monopolize the relationship with South Korea (whose populist government is only too pleased to disassociate from Japan, and the United States, and to appear to reconcile with China), thus driving a wedge between the US and South Korea, and further isolating Japan. And if North Korea appears to denuclearize, the US is less likely to support Japan’s and South Korea’s interests in potentially acquiring nuclear weapons for themselves. Those who believe North Korea is acting out of desperation are sorely underestimating the situation. Kim is not making any concessions.

Not only are his current agreements largely symbolic and cosmetic, but South Korea affirmatively cedes ground on the issue of missile developments, human rights, and liberalization of the political structure. North Korea is getting a de facto green light to continue operating in those realms, because the world’s attention has been so completely focused on the alleged danger of its advancing nuclear problem. In reality, North Korea, even if it were to actually give up nuclear weapons, would be just fine without it, because the missiles, which are just as dangerous and are actually much more likely to be put to use in practice, remain within its control.

Furthermore, there was no direct threat to its leadership at any point, whether from the United States or any other country. Despite President Trump’s rhetoric, which mirrored that of some of his predecessors, the United States was not, in fact, about to launch a nuclear or non-nuclear strike against North Korea. The sanctions, however, were becoming an inconvenience; coupled with an unusable nuclear site, Kim saw an opportunity to pivot the seemingly disastrous situation in his favor, charming the usual suspects, while getting every type of validation North Korea has been working towards the 1990s, including a handshake with the US Secretary of State, and a potential photo op with the US president. However, none of his efforts would have gone anywhere had it not been for the close coordination with China.

China was the likely orchestrator of this seemingly unexpected plot development, having carefully organized Kim’s trip within its own borders, complete with photo ops, and a stamp of approval.  Beijing benefits from this peace mongering effort in several ways: first, by gaining additional legitimacy as a puppeteer which is willing to do favors for the West in the middle of a trade war with the Trump administration. Second, China conveniently distracts the Western powers from close scrutiny of China’s own illicit activities and unwelcome trade with North Korea, which it claims to have significantly reduced, and in some cases stopped altogether.

While these measures were not, ultimately, deal breakers for Chinese economy, they did cause inconvenience and public embarrassment. North Korea’s “pivot” to peace allows China to quietly recover its efforts, while reasserting its own control over the situation without having to engage in an awkward public confrontation with the West. Now that US domestic attention has shifted towards battling Chinese cybercrime and propaganda efforts across various institutions, such as universities, China senses the pressure of possibly losing prestige. For that reason, North Korea’s shift allows it to come out looking good, and possibly even use its role in this situation to negotiate additional concessions from the US or to find another way of spreading agitprop in the West. The optics, in this case, are everything.

Just as importantly, North Korea’s rapprochement with South Korea is a major booster for China’s regional leadership ambitions, in particular with respect to South China Sea. North Korea’s divide and conquer strategy further moves South Korea from the West and towards supporting China’s position on this issue.  To ensure that the White House will not meddle too much in the upcoming developments, China has prodded South Korea to acknowledge President Trump’s role in bringing together the formerly warring countries. Following the script already successfully implemented by the Saudis, China tricked the West into believing that Trump’s comments about North Korea (perhaps coupled with some tougher sanctions US imposed nationally, as well as with the help of the Security Council) were responsible for driving North Korea to the negotiating table.

While the debate is on about just how quickly the president should get the Nobel Peace Prize, and the various media outlets are outdoing each other in partisanship and sycophancy towards their favorite causes, China benefits from the attention to this event and from the propaganda. It will be spun to strengthen Donald Trump’s foreign policy record and butter up the administration for future dealings with China. The White House will be less inclined to engage in confrontations with Beijing, after being delivered a plum prize and even getting to claim credit for it. In reality, however, Beijing and Pyongyang are driving the situation, whereas everyone else is responding to it. And no one else knows for sure what their next move will be. But China and North Korea know what to expect from the West – because this playbook has been used before, on multiple occasions, and the collective Western amnesia with each time has grown more prominent.

The West should not expect an immediate invasion of Seoul. From now on, Pyongyang will be playing a more deliberate, more cautious game. Continuing with his charm offensive, Kim will seep President Moon of the remnants of his political will, slowly bending the entire country, which has grown complacent over the years, and distracted with internal matters, towards supporting a “peace initiative” and moving away from a militant state of mind. South Korea will voluntarily give up US troops, and will voluntarily, step-by-step grant increasing concessions to its neighbor. This will make US involvement in any future confrontations that much more difficult. US will be pushed out of the region, just as it has been increasingly pushed out of the Middle East. Meanwhile, fewer countries will be positioned to oppose China’s incremental encroachment into the South China Sea.

With Japan increasingly at odds with South Korea, and alarmed over the Kim Jung Un-related developments, it will not be positioned well to give additional pushback. China’s strategy from now on will be to coopt or isolate as many of US Asia Pacific allies as possible, while disrupting counter-China blocs. Already, it looks like India, the other powerhouse that could potentially challenge China’s regional dominance, is caving in and looking to foster better relations. India is simply not yet in a position to engage in significant confrontations with China. Militarily, China has a significant advantage. Already, China has reasserted control over Cambodia, causing problems in the Maldives, and becoming increasingly successful in Sri Lanka.

For now, another key player, one that stands in the way for China’s oil development interests ,s still out of reach – but if the Trump administration continues to ignore the region, it may too be either pressured or coopted into showing greater solidarity with China. The US Congress remains unified in opposing China’s aggression towards Taiwan, dehumanizing control of Tibet, and aggressive posturing all over the region. The administration, however, is belatedly realizing that by withdrawing from TPP, the United States has ceded significant economic advantage to China in influencing the other participating party, and now, other countries will have more of a role to play in Asia.  Having no clear regional strategy for Asia Pacific, the US has been relegated to responding to specific narrow steps, rather than to China’s overall grand strategy. However, the Korean peace is certainly part of that strategy, though for how long, only the Party knows. Make no mistake, however, Korea remains a central plan of China’s long term vision, both tactically and strategically.

In the short term, the role of the Korean entente is to keep the West, in particular, the United States distracted. In the longer term, China envisions quietly reestablishing the forbidden ties, while increasing pressure on pro-Western countries in the region, and growing increasingly more assertive and provocative vis-a-vis potential rivals.  Th division between Japan and South Korea will only help matters, since each individual actor is easier to exploit when there is daylight among everyone involved. Japan is still looking to reassert its independence and to play a more prominent role in the region; it also views North Korea, and China’s aggression as existential threats. South Korea, on the contrary, is looking to deescalate tensions and tends to see China as a reasonable partner. The current South Korean leadership seems to be just fine with playing a subservient role.  That is exactly how China likes it, for it still sees South Korea the same way it views North Korea – not as an independent country but as a client state, and potentially, a protectorate of sorts. When examining the rapprochement between the Koreas, the first question to ask is “who benefits”? Sure, it may be in the US interests to see stability and peace in the region, but the ultimate beneficiary of this staged production is China, which looks to take advantage of President Trump’s isolationism and make the situation both seemingly secure enough and uncomfortable for him to voluntarily withdraw from the area and to stop paying attention to anything that does not involve trade talks, as soon as possible.

Whatever Kim Jung Un’s real intentions are, he is far more dangerous when quietly backed by China. Emboldened and empowered by US lack of clarity and leadership when it comes to the general interests of that area, Kim Jung Un is looking to reinvent himself as a maturing brotherly country that just wants to talk. And there will be endless rounds of negotiations, to be sure.  President Trump will continue to be thanked profusely, even as every practical measure will be taken to make it clear that the United Stats has no more role to play, and that its presence has grown tiresome and unwelcome. Very soon, the United States will find itself with having no foothold in the region, and will be forced to watched as the parade is passing it by, unable to do anything but issue threats and belated reactions once China – through Kim – sooner or later finally has t he confidence to show its real face.

The United States should not fall for the ruse, but instead apply consistent pressure to ensure the validity of ongoing negotiations, and a process of forcing Kim to make meaningful and continuous concessions – including granting immediate freedom to all US citizens Kim has in custody, showing concrete evidence of denuclearization, moving away from developing missiles, and liberating political prisoners (which, of course, Kim has no intention of ever doing). This sort of continuous attention will make it more difficult for Kim to get away with cheating, while giving the United States greater legitimacy in the eyes of regular Koreas on both sides of the divide. Should it ever become necessary to intercede in order to protect US allies, US will at least  have a foothold and some level of goodwill from the people to ensure at least minimal cooperation. The US should also not fall for facile Chinese charms, and likewise maintain close scrutiny over its activities vis-a-vis North Korea, and North Korean diaspora. Finally, the US should be working on developing a viable vision for the region, and strategy to defend and protect its allies against China’s pernicious influence. Even if rejoining the TPP fails, there are other multilateral agreements the US should propose in order to stay in the game. At the end of the day, the region is far too important to US interests to reduce it to a charade of clever manipulators seeking to divert US attention from the real game being played somewhere in the background.

By Irina Tsukerman