The Korean Peninsula stands as a gateway to China. It kept the old emperors constantly on guard—and their successors today are no less vigilant.
Beijing’s nightmare is the collapse of its North Korean ally that might well bring U.S. military forces rushing all the way to the border, controlling routes that lead through China’s northeastern industrial heartland to the doors of the capital. North Korea’s latest nuclear bomb test thrusts it back into the diplomatic spotlight, challenging the U.S. to take a more active approach to tackling the threat. What are the options?
That strategic reality emboldens the family dynasty that runs North Korea. Wednesday’s detonation is the latest example—and the most outrageous one, if Pyongyang’s claims to have set off a hydrogen bomb are true—of how North Korea works on Beijing’s deepest anxieties. The “Young General” Kim Jong Un knows that his country is an indispensable buffer for China—“lips to teeth,” as the Chinese say. He can do virtually anything, and get away with it. The dictator has cast what Pyongyang claims is its fourth nuclear test as a challenge to America; it fits into a long established pattern of reckless antics designed to grab attention in Washington, force a crisis and extract diplomatic concessions. But he is also playing a familiar psychological game with a neighbor that supplies his impoverished country’s food and energy and keeps his despotic regime alive.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, a stern authoritarian, is hardly a leader with whom to be toyed. And he has gone further than his predecessors in showing his exasperation with behavior that threatens not only peace in the neighborhood but also China’s own economic security. If Mr. Kim is persona non grata in Beijing—and the fact that China has yet to invite him leads to that conclusion—the South Korean leader, Park Geun-hye, has become a favorite houseguest. She is a regular visitor, showing up most recently last year in a front-row seat at a massive military parade to mark Japan’s defeat in World War II. In a part of the world where politics often plays out in symbols, diplomatic invitations given 4 or withheld have exaggerated significance. What matters most to Beijing, though, is realpolitik. China sees itself in competition with America for mastery of East Asia. Of late, the contest has heated up in the South China Sea, where China a few days ago landed its first plane on Fiery Cross Reef, one of several man-made islands that symbolize its intention to push back American forces. But from Beijing’s perspective, the Korean Peninsula is where the struggle comes perilously close to home. A win for America there, defined as North Korea’s demise, would be a loss for China. Furthermore, it would be a victory for a U.S. alliance system in East Asia whose cornerstone is Japan, China’s rival.
The domestic political fallout would be damaging. The Chinese people would witness the failure of a nominally socialist country and wonder whether their own regime was next. Chinese leaders often portray America as bent on bringing down Chinese Communist Party rule, suggesting they also feel vulnerable, as though they are in the same boat as Pyongyang.
So North Korea must be preserved at all costs, even if that means tolerating its escalating provocations. South Korean President Park Geun-hye said her nation strongly condemns North Korea for detonating a hydrogen bomb Wednesday, and that Seoul and Washington could step up their joint defense posture. Such indulgence isn’t without risk for Mr. Xi. Pyongyang’s claim of a nuclear test is a personal affront; letting it go risks showing weakness, particularly since public opinion in China is moving against North Korea. It also undermines his vision of China as a great power, a peer of America to be respected and treated with deference. Moreover, China’s failure to come down harder on Pyongyang creates dismay in South Korea, and calls into question the sincerity of Mr. Xi’s outreach to the country.
China’s official response didn’t immediately suggest that Mr. Kim had finally pushed his Chinese benefactors too far. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China would lodge “solemn representations” with Pyongyang. She sidestepped a question about potential sanctions, repeating familiar phrases about the need for talks to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Villages and towns along the border are tense after several reports of North Koreans crossing over to kill and plunder. Tremors from Wednesday’s test forced schools to evacuate their playgrounds. Such disruptions merely hint at the massive turmoil that would engulf the area once known as Manchuria if North Korea spun out of control, flooding the centers of Chinese heavy industry with desperate refugees. Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, and his wife Peng Liyuan, right, welcomed South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in September.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, and his wife Peng Liyuan, right, welcomed South Korean President Park Geunhye in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in September. Conceivably, Beijing might feel tempted to give up on Pyongyang if Japan threatened to deploy nuclear weapons for self-protection, or America started deploying missile defenses in South Korea. It is possible that Mr. Xi will run out of patience. A month ago, an all-girl North Korean band favored by Mr. Kim abruptly packed up and left China before its first scheduled concert in Beijing. It isn’t known why the group decamped, but the timing suggested that Beijing was irked: Mr. Kim had just announced his country had acquired a hydrogen bomb.
A small incident, perhaps, but it sent a message that bad blood between the neighbors is getting personal. Count on more severe punishment by Beijing for the test, but don’t expect China to hand a triumph to the U.S. by sacrificing Pyongyang.
Source: The Wall Street Journal