He’s a nut, but he’s their nut

Drum:

There’s something a little hard to understand about China’s continued sponsorship of North Korea. Historically it’s easy enough to understand, but for the past couple of decades it’s surely been nothing but a huge millstone around their necks. Are they really that worried about problems on the border with North Korea? Would they really lose that much face if they abandoned North Korea for good? And surely that would be more than made up for by the goodwill it would generate with the West.

I dunno. I get that questions of loyalty and fear of unrest aren’t always entirely rational. Still, it’s hard to see that China’s alliance with North Korea buys it anything at all these days. If the DPRK imploded tomorrow, wouldn’t they breathe the same sigh of relief as everyone else in the world?

This is Adam’s bailiwick, but I’ll give it a shot: no, I do not think China would feel much relief. After the colossal refugee problem, they would suddenly have a border with NATO* rather than with a crazy but (somewhat) manageable satellite state. For a country as intensely focused on its territorial integrity as China, the DPRK is a dream speedbump for invaders. Its terrain and North Korea’s world-leading use of hardened natural tunnel systems makes it borderline suicide to roll even a modern land army through there, and any aggressive move by us more or less guarantees that Seoul is toast. When the DPRK collapses, that border with China will be patrolled by F-16s, Patriot missile batteries and a land force whose size and readiness is exactly proportional to the mood of our Asia-Pacific allies at that moment.

(*) Not actually NATO, but close enough.






52 replies
  1. 1
    Matt McIrvin says:

    A gigantic refugee crisis can be holy hell to deal with, as anyone watching recent events ought to know. And this one would be at least as big as Syria.

  2. 2
    MattF says:

    I agree that NK is basically a client state for China– neither ‘partner’ in the relationship is happy with it, but ‘pursuit of happiness’ is not a goal in international relations. It satisfies interests on both sides, and both sides are persuaded (probably correctly) that the alternatives are worse. Much worse.

  3. 3
    Lurker 2.0 says:

    The Colossal Refugee problem is no small matter. You’re talking about a massive influx of people with no life skills for a more modern world hosting diseases that are pretty much gone everywhere else.

    It would be a massive humanitarian disaster.

    (I have absolutely no authority to be making this claim, but am passing on what I’ve learned from talking about it with people I trust in the field.)

  4. 4
    Davebo says:

    There is another possibility.

    The DPRK is nearly totally dependent on China. And though Kim Jong-un is without a doubt a nut China could still put significant pressure on him to curb his actions without causing a complete implosion of the country.

    Alternatively, Kim could always suffer a tragic carp fishing accident and one of the Generals could take over.

  5. 5
    David Hunt says:

    I agree with everything you said and I’ll give another reason. The DPRK has nukes. They’re shitty nukes, but they’re still nukes. The Chinese don’t want those things sitting in the middle of the massive chaos that would result from North Korea collapsing any more than the U.S. does.

  6. 6
    raven says:

    Granted I was there 48 years ago but they was all nuts!

  7. 7
    SatanicPanic says:

    @David Hunt: Do they have real nukes they can deploy though?

  8. 8
    Adam L Silverman says:

    TimF, this is only sort of my bailiwick. I have some educational expertise with SE and East Asia, but every time I think I’m going to get boots on the ground experience in that area, I wind up somewhere else. I don’t think a North Korea collapse would make anyone feel better. There are a couple of reasons for this:
    1) What happens to North Korea’s handful of nukes and their weapons material? Can it be secured before it winds up on the black market, scarfed up by other bad actors, or just winds up in the middle of a radioactive humanitarian disaster when impoverished, starving, and desperate North Koreans storm the facilitiess and irradiate themselves and others trying to find anything useful to just staying alive during the collapse.
    2) Sort of a follow on from the first point: do the Kims do something really stupid and desperate with this stuff during the collapse?
    3) Trying to run humanitarian disaster and relief efforts among an impoverished, desperate, and heavily indoctrinated for distrust of anyone and anything not North Korean population. Even if 1 and 2 can be easily dealt with, this last one is going to be a huge problem. While China will have to be involved because its been North Korea’s patron, but the only country with the ability to do the strategic lift for this type of operation is the US. The problem won’t be partnering with the Chinese per se – in fact that might have some positive follow on effects. Rather the problem is going to be the amount of resources that will need to be funneled in to prevent the entire peninsula from destabilizing and to contain the destabilization to the northern portion of the peninsula before it can spread to China. If it did spread to China, that’s going to be ugly. China doesn’t do chaotic and if they have to move to contain internally, that’ll distract them and divert them from assisting with the humanitarian response.

  9. 9
    Mike in NC says:

    Just watched a documentary called “The Propaganda Game” on Netflix, where in 2014 a team of photographers from Spain were allowed to enter North Korea to see how free and modern and open it was. All an elaborate Potemkin Village, of course, with happy well-dressed well-fed people trotted out to gush about how great life was in the DPRK. Imagine churches without clergy, museums and parks without visitors, or hospitals lacking telephones or computers. But they did touch on how both China and Japan wouldn’t be real happy with a unified Korea to compete with economically.

  10. 10
    Chris says:

    China is by far the nation that’s in the best position to influence North Korean policy.

    Therefore, anyone who wants to change North Korean policy will probably have to go through China.

    The nations that feel threatened by North Korea and would like to influence its policy that way (South Korea, Japan, the West) are all nations that China doesn’t mind having in its debt.

    Wouldn’t that be at least one reason for them to hang onto the North Korean alliance?

  11. 11
    pharniel says:

    There’s also the sheer joy of the DPRK constantly pissing off the US. Keeping Soul in check is a handy rational reason, but the constant harassment of the US is even better.
    Basically the Kim’s are China’s personal troll.

  12. 12
    Chris says:

    Also: traditionally (in the Cold War at least), these kind of clients are considered useful by the superpowers because they can do the work that’s too dirty to be done personally. America used Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to support anticommunist movements throughout the Middle East and South Asia, Argentina and Chile for something similar in Latin America, South Africa for something similar in Africa… The Soviet Union had countries like Cuba and Libya for the same kind of purposes… Anyone know if China might use North Korea in the same way? It seems like the kind of country that great powers like to keep around for that kind of thing.

  13. 13
    Davebo says:

    @Mike in NC: I too saw that documentary available on Netflix but rather than watch it I decided I’d learned all I really need to know about the DPRK from “The Interview”.

  14. 14
    WJS says:

    Oh, come on.

    China does not care about refugees or any ethnic minority. China needs raw materials, of which DPRK has massive amounts of. DPRK occupies other entities–defense budget of South Korea prevents SK from being much larger commercial economy. Forcing US, SK, and Japan to deal with DPRK means we’re not focusing on them. This has allowed them to expand into South China Sea so that they can revive territorial claims against Okinawa and the Spratly Islands.

    China loves the status quo situation on the Korean peninsula. Everyone keeps paying attention to the crazy obese grandson who likes to order summary executions. For all practical purposes, we have no military presence there anymore, beyond 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade. The vast majority of American troops in SK are support and logistical in nature. Many of them have their families with them, and they’ve pulled back to the area south of Seoul. We are not there to stop the north; we are there, IMO, to keep the ROK army from starting a shooting war.

  15. 15
    Archon says:

    I read somewhere that the Korean War is a huge part of the post-revolution mythos in China. They basically fought the West into a draw at huge cost (500,000 Killed). I suspect the Chinese leadership knows North Korea is doomed but they paid a enormous price to keep the U.S off their border and I’m sure recognize (as they did in 1950) that a unified Korea will be allied to the west and hostile to Chinese interests.

  16. 16
    mdblanche says:

    @Mike in NC: I doubt having to integrate the closest equivalent to Oceania in the real world could possibly be good for South Korea’s economy.

  17. 17
  18. 18
    max says:

    When the DPRK collapses, that border with China will be patrolled by F-16s, Patriot missile batteries and a land force whose size and readiness is exactly proportional to the mood of our Asia-Pacific allies at that moment.

    If North Korea collapses, the Chinese will occupy it. (‘For humanitarian reasons.’)

    max
    [‘We won’t be getting to the Yalu anytime before Hell freezes over.’]

  19. 19
    C.V. Danes says:

    Perhaps China could also be convinced to give up Tibet…

  20. 20
    Zinsky says:

    I’m not usually an advocate of violence but it seems like the easy solution here is a 30.06 shell through the Dear Leaders head at 300 yards. Doesn’t the CIA have any sharpshooters any more?

  21. 21

    @Davebo:
    So what you’re saying is that China likes the current situation. They get the benefit of their crazy neighbor giving the US, ROK, and Japan fits while having plausible deniability that it’s their fault. When they do step in and apply some pressure, they get treated like heroes for bringing the crazies to heel. They also get a buffer between them and ROK (and USA) forces. What’s not to like?

  22. 22
    gene108 says:

    @Davebo:

    The DPRK is nearly totally dependent on China. And though Kim Jong-un is without a doubt a nut China could still put significant pressure on him to curb his actions without causing a complete implosion of the country.

    China tried this with his grandfather, in the 1980’s, when China was implementing its own reforms and his father, but neither of them bothered to give China the time of day, with regards to reform.

    No reason the youngest Kim will be any different.

  23. 23
    jl says:

    @Humboldtblue: Thanks for off topic link to Paiutes and Shoshone history. If there were any justice at all, those two peoples would get some land back in the area. I remember driving around Pyramid Lake with my NV kin tracing the course of the two Paiute wars.

    I think a good case can be made that the wars started because racist local whites refused to discipline their own community’s criminal activity towards the Paiutes, and the goofball local militias would have been wiped out except for intervention of federal troops. And IIRC the federal troops had a difficult time dealing with the tactical smarts of the Paiute leaders. The Paiutes also have a great oral literature. Really amazing stories and tales. Twain would have been jealous if he knew it, or maybe he did and was (though I doubt it, I think his contempt for the native peoples in that area was life long, but not sure).

    Edit: IIRC, local whites were so surprised that the supposed dimwit local natives could whip them, that they attributed it to hidden and sinister leadership by Mormons.

  24. 24
    Amir Khalid says:

    I’m curious. If you were North Korea’s patron country, just what dirty work would you dare rely on them to carry out? I reckon China knows better than to consider that, more so than anyone else..

  25. 25
    gene108 says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    Rather the problem is going to be the amount of resources that will need to be funneled in to prevent the entire peninsula from destabilizing and to contain the destabilization to the northern portion of the peninsula before it can spread to China.

    I think South Korea would bear a heavier brunt of refugees and destabilization than any other country.

  26. 26
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @raven: When I was there (two decades after you) the joke was the US Forces were there as much to deter the ROK from going North as they were there to deter the North from going South.

  27. 27
    goblue72 says:

    @Zinsky: Screw that. Test the Navy’s rail gun on his head.

  28. 28
    jl says:

    Back on topic:

    One reason that this is supposed to be a big deal is NK’s claim this is a miniaturized fusion weapon. Apparently scientists are skeptical. I guess we will know sooner or later when more data are available.

    News article:
    There’s a disturbing reason scientists are worried about the bomb North Korea says it just set off
    http://news.yahoo.com/theres-d.....00294.html

    Also, I hear in news that the GOP presidential contestants are already jumping on this is more proof of failed Obama foreign policy. IIRC, NK made most of its progress on nukes during the Bush/Cheney years of showing strength and resolve, following a clever strategy of yelling ‘We Win They Lose’. But I might be wrong, Not sure I remember the history correctly.

  29. 29

    @goblue72:
    No, no. You want plausible deniability, so the ideal weapon would be something in the AK family.

  30. 30
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @jl: Yeah, that worthless fuckstick Rubio is making all sorts of incoherent noises about the NKs.

  31. 31
    WJS says:

    @Amir Khalid: Money laundering. Meth manufacturing. Kidnapping. Pirating DVDs. Hacking into Sony Pictures Inc.

    Fear of execution has made quite a few North Koreans rather useful.

  32. 32
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Zinsky: A solution to what? Every time the guy in charge there dies, the next one is even worse. Granted they’re all in the same family.

  33. 33
    Amir Khalid says:

    @WJS:
    Those are North Korea’s doings; it’s well known as the Mundungus Fletcher of nations. The PRC doesn’t need to do any of that.

  34. 34
    Paul in KY says:

    The PRC is still officially ‘Communist’ and the DPRK is Communist (of a very weird flavor) and they helped bring the country into existence.

    Plus the speed bump stuff in post.

  35. 35

    @jl:
    If the yield estimate is correct, then it’s highly unlikely that DPRK’s successfully tested a two-stage nuclear device*. 6-10 KT is in the range you can easily get with an unboosted fission device, and my impression is that it’s actually pretty hard to keep a boosted fission device that small. It’s possible to make a two-stage device that small, but it’s not clear why you’d want to.

    *I’m not going to call it a bomb because there’s no real evidence that they’ve successfully weaponized it.

  36. 36
    Paul in KY says:

    @Mike in NC: I love Korea so much there should be 2 of them!

    (old punch line to French joke about West/East Germany)

  37. 37
    raven says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: It wasn’t a joke IMHO.

  38. 38
    Paul in KY says:

    @Zinsky: What whackjob takes over? Maybe a more competent & diabolical one?

  39. 39
    WJS says:

    @Amir Khalid: As I meant to point out; China outsources those kinds of things to their friendly little neighbor.

  40. 40
  41. 41
    NonyNony says:

    @Zinsky:

    it seems like the easy solution here is a 30.06 shell through the Dear Leaders head at 300 yards

    And then?

    Look they just had one Dear Leader die and they brought his son in. Who seems to be carrying on the leadership pretty much as it has been. The entire military apparatus apparently bought into it. Let’s assume that he dies not of an obvious assassination attempt (which would obviously produce a lot of blowback) but instead chokes on a chicken bone or something – you think the next guy who gets that gig is going to be much of a change?

    Until the NK movers and shakers decide that its in their best interest to have a different kind of leadership at the top, the top isn’t going to change much. And from what little we can tell about NK from the outside, the movers and shakers in NK are all a) military and b) like the way things are being run.

    (I suspect that the idea that China has much influence on NK beyond being able to vaguely guide them away from the edge of truly disastrous choices is wrong. I strongly suspect that despite being reliant on China to feed the population, NK is highly independent of China in a way that whenever NK is finally opened up and the history gets released scholars will be astounded by. )

  42. 42
    eemom says:

    I’m reading a really excellent book, Nothing To Envy, which I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about North Korea.

    @Villago Delenda Est:
    @raven:

    According to the author there was indeed a time when the North was doing better than the South.

    Also too, Kevin Drum is talking out of his ass.

  43. 43
    Brachiator says:

    There is no rational reason for China to continue its support for North Korea, except perhaps to maintain the facade of another stable communist regime.

    If they pushed for unification, they would be unable to justify continuing communist their own communist rule.

    This obviously sucks for the people of North Korea. Intense suffering and starvation is allowed, but China could easily subvert the NK regime if it wanted. It could also allow for humanitarian food relief and the beginning of reunification with the South.

    Similarly, despite the relative stability of Kurdish regions in the Middle East, no one will allow for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, Syria and Turkey because it would upset the regimes in place. These dopes would rather endure the threat of ISIS than see peaceful Kurdish enclaves, even if these areas were still formally connected to their respective countries.

    Geopolitics ain’t kind.

  44. 44
    Brachiator says:

    @eemom:

    According to the author there was indeed a time when the North was doing better than the South.

    Really? When was this? What happened?

  45. 45
    WJS says:

    @Brachiator: There was a brief period in 1996-97 when the currency took a massive hit. Even then, I would guess that the time when NK did better than SK would have been during post-war reconstruction 1953-1960 or so. Both countries, even today, have massive populations of poor people but it would be infinitely more difficult to be poor in the north rather than the south.

  46. 46
    Brachiator says:

    @gene108:

    I think South Korea would bear a heavier brunt of refugees and destabilization than any other country.

    I don’t think that the problem would be any greater than the re-unification of East and West Germany.

    The only issue would be the dismantling of N Korea’s political leadership.

  47. 47
    gene108 says:

    @Brachiator:

    I don’t think that the problem would be any greater than the re-unification of East and West Germany.

    East Germany was the most industrial advanced Eastern Bloc nation. They were behind West German economically, but they did have industry, which was inefficient and outdated, and solid educational system (Merkel was raised in East Germany), and unification still had plenty of bumps.

    After the 1994 famine, North Korea’s economy basically collapsed. It went from having some archaic factory systems to having no one working in the factories, because everyone was starving to death. Factories, railroads, etc. all just shut down and whether or not much of anything has been restored in the last 20 years is hard to guess, as they are not a very transparent society.

    From stories of people, who left 15 years ago, the economy was basically people bartering goods on their own or for whatever cash anyone had on hand.

    Even with regards to technical education, because North Korea is so backwards, most of what people are learning is obsolete, being taught via obsolete methods on obsolete equipment.

    The disparity between North Korea, which is one of the world’s poorest and least developed nations, in many respects, and South Korea, which is rocketing towards First World wealth levels is huge.

    From some books I’ve read the Korean language has diverged enough between the North and the South that it’s easy to tell, which Korea a person is from as soon as he/she opens his/her mouth.

    Integration of the two Koreas will be a big problem.

    But worth it in the long run.

  48. 48
    gene108 says:

    @eemom:

    I’m reading a really excellent book, Nothing To Envy, which I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about North Korea.

    Second the recommendation.

  49. 49
    Brachiator says:

    @WJS:

    Both countries, even today, have massive populations of poor people but it would be infinitely more difficult to be poor in the north rather than the south.

    But I get the impression not simply that there are massive populations of poor people in both countries, but that NK deliberately keeps its people poor. It would be as though independent Ireland deliberately kept the potato famine going on.

    I recall a news story about something as basic as satellite imagery of the two countries:

    Since the mid-1990s, when fuel stopped flowing from the defunct Soviet Union to North Korea, the famously hermetic country has descended into darkness. Newly released photos taken from the International Space Station last month reveal just how energy bankrupt North Korea has become. The photos, and a time-lapse video of the region, show the country as almost completely black, in contrast to the bright lights of neighbors like South Korea and Japan….

    In her 2009 book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick described the effect darkness has on culture.

    Streets become too dark for people to walk, limiting social interactions outside of daytime work hours. No one can watch TV or consume the limited amount of media allowed by the government.

    Still, some parts of North Korea never go dark. Several government buildings, as well as Kim Jong Un’s personal palace, stay lit at all times. Also illuminated around the clock: the famous 560-foot (171-meter) Juche Tower at the center of Pyongyang. It stands as a lonely symbol of nationalism and self-reliance, whatever the cost.

    NK is as bad as any fundamentalist state, or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

  50. 50
    eemom says:

    @Brachiator:

    NK is as bad as any fundamentalist state, or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

    It’s far worse, more like Nazi Germany. Not only are people starved, they are sent to concentration camps.

  51. 51
    Brachiator says:

    @eemom:

    It’s far worse, more like Nazi Germany. Not only are people starved, they are sent to concentration camps.

    Fair enough.

  52. 52
    Bill Arnold says:

    @Roger Moore:

    …my impression is that it’s actually pretty hard to keep a boosted fission device that small.

    Was hoping Cheryl Rofer would weigh in here.
    Boosting can double the fission yield, according to what looks to me like a decent wikipedia backgroiunder
    (Probably I am butchering the vocabulary hereon.)

    Basically some tritium and deuterium (as gas or as lithium deuteride/tritide) is physically close to the fission device (maybe inside it) and very early on in the fission explosion it gets hot enough to fuse, releasing a large number of neutrons, which then increases the efficiency of the fission reaction. Only a percent or two of the yield is fusion.
    One claimed advantage is that boosted fission devices can be made resistant to predetonation by neutron radiation from nearby nuclear explosions. As I read it, the design can be a near dud, saved by the boosting.

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