China’s long game in Korea

lawrence sellin

Underlying the current lovefest between North Korea and South Korea with the offer of a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and a possible denuclearization of the peninsula are prospects more ominous for U.S. Asia-Pacific policy.

The crux of the issue is the concept of spheres of influence.

One of the chief causes of the Korea War was the perception by North Korea, China and the Soviet Union that the Korean peninsula was outside the U.S. defense perimeter. The genesis of this perception can be attributed to the January 12, 1950 National Press Club speech given by then Secretary of State Dean Acheson, which defined the U.S. sphere of influence from Japan to the Philippines.

Based on evidence from Russian archives published by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars:

“In the spring of 1950 Stalin’s policy toward Korea took an abrupt turn. During meetings with Kim Il Sung in Moscow in April, Stalin approved Kim’s plan to reunify the country by military means and agreed to provide the necessary supplies and equipment for the operation… Stalin’s purpose was not to test American resolve; on the contrary, he approved the plan only after having been assured that the United States would not intervene.

Because U.S. troops had been withdrawn from the Korean peninsula in 1949, the reasoning behind the North Korean invasion argued; “it would be a decisive surprise attack and the war would be won in three days” and “the U.S. would not have time to participate.” Retired North Korean brigadier general Chung Sang-chin said the Acheson speech was known and “produced a certain influence on Kim Il Sung.”

Stalin’s intent was to extend Soviet influence in Asia by supporting its proxy North Korea in a scenario wherein the United States could not provide a timely or effective response, thus avoiding a major confrontation and providing the Soviet Union and its communist allies an easy strategic fait accompli.

Applying the conclusions in the Wilson Center report to the current situation, where Beijing has replaced Moscow as Pyongyang’s sponsor, the North Koreans retain their own goals for reunification and are not simply puppets. Nevertheless, the Chinese continue their close supervision of North Korea.

The events now taking place represent the intersection of Chinese and North Korea aims. It is no coincidence that Kim Jong Un, in his first known trip abroad since taking power, made an official visit to China in March, just prior to initiating talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and later possibly attending a summit with President Trump.

The apparent North Korean about-face occurred after a long period of provocation with the development of missiles capable of hitting the United States mainland and what Kim claimed was a missile-ready hydrogen bomb.

Perhaps, like Stalin, Chinese President Xi Jinping wishes to avoid direct confrontation with the United States on the Korean peninsula, which could derail a grander strategy.

Instead, as part of that strategy, China hopes to decouple South Korea from the U.S. militarily by making the withdrawal of American forces a quid pro quo for a peace treaty and denuclearization, thereby, again placing Korea outside the U.S. defense perimeter and extending China’s sphere of influence to the shoreline of Japan.

The Trump administration should remain wary because the present aura of détente surrounding potential Korean reconciliation is inconsistent with recent Chinese actions in the Asia-Pacific region including: alleged Chinese “subversion, cyber intrusions, and harassment on the high seas” against Australia; increased Chinese military activities in the Taiwan straits; and China’s continued aggressive naval operations in the South China Sea.

In his written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Philip Davidson, nominated as the new US Pacific Command chief, said that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States” and is “able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania.”

The situation in Korea should not be evaluated in isolation, but considered as part of a larger, long-term Chinese strategy, in which North Korea is a partner and where the U.S. needs to maintain a posture of high vigilance and low expectations.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com.