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Some outsiders to Asia are painting a skewed scenario of the current Korea tensions that casts China as co-villain (with the US), if not chief villain. This represents a serious misleading of what’s going on in Northeast Asia.
The real, core story here is not Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing aircraft carrier diplomacy, which is a headline-hogging sideshow that is not designed to result in war. The main story is the steadily worsening relationship between China and North Korea, which accelerated with Kim Jong Un’s rise to power five years ago and reached boiling point recently. Washington, of course, knows this and senses an opportunity to push through a decisive change in the geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia. Trump is naturally trying to exploit it to maximum (US) advantage.
The two-giants-joining-to-bully-a-principled-midget narrative is an alluring one that also happens to be cock ‘n bull. Even more outlandish is the scenario favored in some leftist circles of “revisionist” China vs. “revolutionary” North Korea. Everyone in the real Asia knows that political ideology died long ago, in China and to a large extent even in North Korea. Lip service is paid while everyone goes about more mundane, practical pursuits. If any “ism” applies meaningfully in today’s Asia, it’s nationalism.
So what’s the story between Beijing and Pyongyang? Their traditionally strong ties are well known, forged in blood and from history. The bottom line is that if not for China’s critical contributions — including half a million PLA casualties during the Korea War — the DPRK wouldn’t even exist. Chinese throughout China, already dirt-poor after a century of war and upheaval, had to further tighten their belts for the war. The war had another fateful effect: preventing the complete unification of China. The PLA was about to cross the Taiwan Strait when the Korean War broke out. Beijing had to put on hold plans to reunite Taiwan, as all PLA troops in southern China had to be deployed to the Korean Peninsula. In the East Asian, Confucian mindset, that is the kind of debt you never forget, down through x generations.
Since the Korean War, China has continued crucial assistance and sacrifice for Pyongyang:
1) Food, fuel and fertiliser to DPRK over the years aggregating several billion USD. China has been the largest aid giver. The aid staved off many famines in North Korea over decades.
2) When China established diplomatic relations with South Korea in the 1990s, the Kim dynasty destroyed graveyards and even dug up graves where PLA soldiers killed in the Korean War were buried.
3) The DPRK deliberately sited nuclear facilities close to the Chinese border. Each time there is a nuclear test, it sets off a minor “earthquake,” destroying houses and forcing residents to evacuate.
4) In some years, half the grain production in northeast China was given as aid to North Korea.
5) Through the decades, Beijing constantly provided Pyongyang with diplomatic cover, the only major nation to do so, as well as security under its de facto nuclear umbrella. Whatever the prevailing smoke ‘n mirrors, the fact is this: The US has not attacked North Korea because that would mean crossing the thick, absolutely immovable red line that Beijing drew in blood in the early 1950s.
For China, perhaps the biggest liability of having Pyongyang as an ally is not even all the above. It is this: DPRK long provided the biggest single public pretext for the US Empire to surround China with weapons and troops in NE Asia, in a sustained containment drive that reached a climax with Washington’s “pivot to Asia,” starting 2011.
And what has the DPRK given China in return? Essentially, it served as a useful buffer between China and the US Empire’s military forces in South Korea. An exorbitantly expensive one.
For reasons best known to Pyongyang itself, that “protection” cost rose dramatically after Kim Jong Un’s ascension. The visible signs included Kim’s murder or purge of all senior people in his government known or suspected of being friendly to No. 1 benefactor China, including blood relatives. Unlike his father and grandfather, KJU never paid even a courtesy visit to Beijing since taking power. Most spectacularly, he had his half-brother Kim Yong Nam — who’d renounced politics and was under Chinese protection — killed when the latter was visiting Malaysia.
In the present crisis, knowing that his missile antics would allow the US to deploy THAAD as well as put extra diplomatic pressure on Beijing, KJU nonetheless went ahead — repeatedly. If China moved visibly to rein him in, Trump & Co. could all too easily portray China as joining their efforts to do the same, rubbishing China’s reliability as an ally and descrediting its independent, Third World credentials. That is already what Trump and his top officials have been doing.
There is a view that North Korea’s obsessive drive to develop nukes is aimed less at the US Empire than at creating trouble for China, perhaps in a bid for what Pyongyang sees as “independence” from both. Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, that once-outlandish view seems all too plausible.
Given all the above, no one should be surprised if China should seek to neutralize Kim Jong Un. That does NOT mean destroying or not continuing to protect the DPRK — far from it. If the high-risk scenario of KJU-neutralization should unfold, it will have little to do with Beijing “cooperating with” or “kowtowing to” the US-centered Empire. Instead, it will have everything to do with China’s own possibly too-toxic-to-save relationship with the incumbent representative of the Kim dynasty.