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US military chief in Beijing warns of North Korea ‘miscalculation’

US Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey is in China looking for help on North Korea. Though Beijing indicated it was ‘working on’ it, there are a number of reasons why China might be reluctant to push the North too hard.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to China this week to meet its top leaders after weeks of missile threats directed at South Korea and the US by North Korea‘s Kim Jong-un.

The Chinese told Dempsey of the possibility of a fourth nuclear test by the North, and advocated for a renewal of multi-party talks with the North. 

Washington wants China to do more to reign in the North’s young leader, and is under pressure fromTokyo and Seoul not to allow nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles to develop on the Korean Peninsula

The US general said of the North’s recent bluster and belligerence that, “I think the risk of miscalculation is higher, and I think the risk of escalation is higher,” and added that next-door neighbor China is working on the problem. 

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“I will leave here with the belief that the Chinese leadership is as concerned as we are with North Korea’s march toward nuclearization and ballistic missile technology,” Dempsey told reporters on his last full day, “and they have given us an assurance that they are working on it, as we are.”

The trip came as China stepped up activity around a disputed island in the Pacific and also angered India with recent Chinese troop activity around a disputed border in the Himalayas. The military leaders had a full agenda, which included cyber-security. 

But the Pentagon trip had a definite undercurrent of North Korea to it.

What Washington wants

US lawmakers and Washington wonks have said again and again that the key to stopping Mr. Kim’s nuclear threat runs through Beijing. So much, so that China’s influence on North Korea has taken on a mantra-status.  

“People around [Washington] DC are always bewildered that the Chinese are not doing what they they think the Chinese are supposed to do about Korea,” says Hazel Smith, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center in Washington.

To be sure, China is by far North Korea’s most significant ally — its main source of commerce, aid, food, and fuel. China has leverage. The Chinese people, and a significant number of its scholars, have advocated more stick from Beijing with its old ally.  

Yet Chinese leaders say their influence with North Korea is limited.

Intelligence sources say the mobile launch platform for North Korea’s Musudan missile – being moved this week, according to South Korean reports, for a test – is made in China. So are many of the more than 100,000 parts required for the array of mid-to-long-range missiles thatPyongyang is believed to be developing.

However, China did vote in the UN to impose sanctions on the North after the Kim regime tested a nuclear device in February. Gen. Fang Fenghui affirmed to Dempsey today that China abhors nuclear tests and said tensions on the peninsula are an occasion to re-open multi-party talks.

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Yet many Asia watchers are dubious that China either can or will take decisive action to push North Korea.

Here are five underlying reasons why:

1. ‘As close as lips and teeth,’ or, China still needs friends.

China wants to fulfill international expectations and live up to its emerging status as a great power, but it has a long history with the North. China might be nervous, say analysts, that North Korea could actually get serious one-on-one talks with Washington and flip loyalties.

Many Chinese look at North Korea — isolated, poor, ideological — and see themselves 25 years ago. Back then China and the North were as “close as lips and teeth,” — fellow traveling revolutionaries and former war partners against the imperialists.  

But the world is changing. When Beijing looks around Asia, it can see some abrupt flips of position and loyalty: Myanmar, one of China’s previous pets, suddenly looks like it may come out of its dark cocoon and make friends with others. Vietnam, long a Chinese fellow-traveler, has turned away as well. China may not want to lose such a strategic card and partner as the North.

2. The ‘buffer zone’

China may not like the fact that Kim Jong-un is playing dangerous games: After Mr. Kim’s latest nuclear test, many Chinese on social media were angry, calling him a “baby tiger” to be tamed.

But China needs North Korea as a security buffer. An under-developed and impotent North separates China from a vibrant and democratic zone now called South Korea. For the moment, that’s just fine. China is a soft-authoritarian regime; a main worry is control of its own people.  Any Korea scenario that ends up with the US and allies standing on its northeast border becomes a problem in China’s eyes. The idea of a US soldier driving a jeep or tank to within inches of its territory, or of Japanese or South Korean traders standing freely at the Yellow River, is radically unwanted. East Asia is still in a 19th century “power game” of nations.

Hence, in Beijing’s view, keeping North Korea stable helps keep the US from getting too close to China.

3. Refugees and chaos.

A North Korea in transition — whether finally opening up or in collapse, or both — could see mass movements of people. If Koreans move out of the North they will likely go across the border to China, rather than risk the heavily mined demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. China has a bit of a window into what that could look like: A flight-to-China scenario actually did happen in the famine years of the 1990s, when, despite the most dire of warnings and penalty of torture or death, tens of thousands of North Koreans escaped to China to avoid starvation. While there is no similar mass hunger today, China is worried about the lack of control it might have should a war or a crisis force possibly hundreds of thousands of ordinary Koreans across the Yellow River and into its provinces. The prospect of so many refugees flooding into China would not only be expensive and potentially flare ethnic tensions in the region, it could violate one of China’s prime directives: stability. 

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4. Korea as a future competitor

A unified, robust Korea could cut into China’s clout and competitiveness.

Before it divided, Korea was agricultural and saw itself as a shrimp among the whales of China and Japan. But in the past decade, South Korea and its population of less than 50 million, has become one of the top 10 industrial output nations. Just as South Korea cut into Japan’s share two decades ago, a unified Korea could give Beijing a tough competitor. Thinkers in Seoul have looked to the example of Germany uniting, East and West. The creation of joint North-South industrial parks like Kaesong (recently closed by Kim Jong-un) or other projects in the Koreas, using a disciplined and talented people, could be an economic threat.

Long-time Asia watcher Philip Bowring, a dean of journalists in Hong Kong, notes in a recent column about a reconciling the Koreas:

Korea can never be a large nation, but the combination of the South’s global impact on technology and on popular culture with the energy that a reviving northern region – which also has a younger population – could provide, is a prospect that is not without problems for Beijing.

5. All of the above

China gives power, energy, food, goods, and support to North Korea to keep it stable and a buffer zone in a relationship that is ambiguous and often frustrating. All of the scenarios above weigh into China’s calculations about its interests; all could bring a change to the status quo that seems unhappy to China. 

Beijing often complains the US is trying to “contain” it. Yet for a decade, as North Korea crossed many “red lines” — going from IAEA nuclear inspectors, to actually testing nukes — Washington has relied on Beijing to organize its policy on Pyongyang. China, in a sense, controls the relationship through the now-moribund Six-Party talks. Some China hawks in the US believe China voted for UN sanctions against North Korea in February partly to drive an unremovable wedge between America and DPRK. More moderate voices like that of Scott Snyder at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington argue: “The US to trying to get more cooperation from China but also has pursued direct talks” with Pyongyang.