By WENDELL MINNICK
North Korea’s professed nuclear test of Oct. 9 has given China an uncomfortable choice, regional analysts said.
“You gotta feel sorry for Beijing: getting tough on Pyongyang invites regime collapse, not getting tough on Pyongyang invites a stronger Japan,” said June Teufel Dreyer, an Asia defense specialist at the University of Miami, Fla.
Beijing’s close ties to Pyongyang, which have invited suspicion in the past, are now seen as crucial to diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis. How China acts will be taken as a harbinger of its intended role in Asian security affairs. All eyes are on Beijing, especially in Tokyo, where the North Korean test has given pace to debates about beefing up its military.
“China’s role as a responsible stakeholder is being critically tested in the eyes of the Japanese policymakers,” said Yoichiro Sato, a professor at the Honolulu-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. “Knee-jerk responses by China and North Korea’s nuclearization will push Japan into closer military cooperation with the United States, and possibly more autonomous preemptive capability at the same time.
“In contrast, a successful resolution of the crisis with significant Chinese contributions will greatly improve security situations in the region, forestalling the argument for defense autonomy,” Sato said.
Beijing’s options include cutting off North Korea’s heating oil supply as winter approaches. But Chinese officials’ hands may be tied by fears about destabilizing the the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the official name of North Korea.
“Despite their annoyance with the DPRK, they will continue to supply it with energy and food as they calculate that its possible collapse would pose all kinds of dangers to China,” said Michael Yahuda, a China specialist at the London School of Economics. “They will press for continued diplomacy and will probably try to ensure that whatever sanctions the U.N. Security Council imposes will not be too severe.”
Dreyer put it more bluntly: “The PRC [the People’s Republic of China] is not going to agree to meaningful sanctions, since those might cause social disintegration with hordes of starving Koreans desperately storming the border.”
Still, China has a long history of allowing truculent allies to be punished by other nations, notes Asian Security editor Michael Chambers. In 1971, China withdrew military support from Pakistan, which had ignored requests to ease its crackdown in East Pakistan. Beijing’s move left Pakistan the worse for wear when India subsequently attacked. In 1978, Beijing warned its Khmer Rouge allies in Cambodia to quit provoking Vietnam, then refused to send aid when Vietnam attacked.
An adviser to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Chinese reaction would be more calculating.
“Chinese strategy has been brilliant because it is calculatingly ambiguous — to give the impression of siding with the U.S. by claiming punitive sanctions are needed, but then stopping short of effective steps by not turning off the oil pipeline again or supporting the” Proliferation Security Initiative, said Michael Pillsbury. “This way, Beijing maintains close ties with Pyongyang. The Chinese succeed at this due to wishful thinking in Washington combined with the successful effect of covert Chinese winking to Kim Jong Il.”
Japan Is Watching
In Japan, the North Korean test has given pace to the debate about Japan’s place on the world security stage: Should the country continue to defer to the United States, make bold constitutional changes to permit wider military operations, or both?
New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “a hawk and conservative, has repeatedly expressed a strong desire to see the postwar Constitution revised early and also to expand the boundaries of Japan’s military activities,” said Hisane Masaki, a Tokyo-based defense analyst with the Japan Forum on International Relations.
But Sato foresees less change.
“Japan’s domestic debate about preemptive strike capability will no doubt be influenced by the DPRK test, but it is questionable that Japan will quickly shed its ‘defensive defense’ posture and become a ‘normal’ power,” the Asia-Pacific Center analyst said. “Japan’s preferred path to resolution of this problem continues to be a diplomatic one, considering the possibility that DPRK may already possess nuclear warheads that may reach Japan.”
But Sato agreed with most other analysts that Japan will accelerate its missile-defense efforts.
He also sees increased military action if the United States pushes through the United Nations a proposal to levy sanctions on North Korea.
“If the U.S.-proposed resolution, including naval inspection of DPRK vessels, passes the U.N. Security Council, Japan will invoke its Regional Contingency Law and the U.S.-Japan Guideline for Security Cooperation to allow its Self-Defense Forces to play supportive roles in conjunction with U.S. forces,” Sato said.
Tokyo enforces various unilateral sanctions on its neighbor across the Sea of Japan: one North Korean ferryboat is forbidden to dock in Japan, and 15 organizations and one individual are forbidden to wire money to North Korea.
Further sanctions could include broad regulation of agricultural and marine products, or a ban on the arrival of any ship whose last port of call was in North Korea.
“However, economic sanctions cannot do much, and Kim Jong-Il may still remember that the Clinton administration lifted economic sanctions on India and Pakistan within six months of their nuclear test in 1998,” said Sumihiko Kawamura, a retired rear admiral with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.
“Once North Korea has nuclear weapons, there is very little the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia can do about it,” he said. “If we do not want to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, the only hope is the internal collapse of the Kim Jong-Il regime before it acquires long-range nuclear missiles. The only option will be to take severe economic sanctions as well as military options under the world body.”
Some analysts say the North Korean test will embolden Japanese politicians and other players who favor an effort to develop nuclear weapons.
“This gives the right wing [in Japan], which has been wanting nuclear weapons for years, exactly the leverage they need,” Dreyer said.
Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow with the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, said he believes Japan will go nuclear if the United States does not “provide them with reassurance that our nuclear deterrent is credible.
“The world is definitely a more dangerous place overnight. Kim Jong-Il will sell anything to anybody, and the only reasonable alternative we have is the containment policy. This means a stronger Pacific force posture, including a nuclear posture, and strong efforts to stop and inspect ships that leave and come to the DPRK,” said Blumenthal, who has served as senior director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia in the Secretary of Defense’s Office of International Security Affairs.
“I do not think that Japan will begin to think about arming itself with nuclear arms, although some hawkish politicians may call for such arms,” said Hisane Masaki, a Tokyo-based defense analyst with the Japan Forum on International Relations.