By Jonathan Power*
Kim Jong-un, paramount leader of the North Korean dictatorship, arrived in Vietnam by train and limousine ready to meet President Donald Trump. The two leaders met in June 2018 in Singapore, applauded themselves and each other and made some sort of a deal even if it wasn’t the one Trump boasted about – the total elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, the North has stopped nuclear testing. The U.S. only stopped in 1992 and France in 1996, so this is a very important step forward. It should not be minimized as the American “Blob” is doing. (The “Blob”, a creation of the White House of President Barack Obama, is the highly influential industrial/military/legislative/media complex, a majority of whom are hard line on foreign affairs.)
The North also has begun dismantling a missile-engine test site. Set against that, the U.S. intelligence community and independent observers say it is continuing to build intercontinental missiles and is preparing to conceal its nuclear assets and activities.
In the wings of these negotiations will be China. It has long opposed what North Korea is doing, at one time joining the West and Russia in imposing sanctions. But it has never quite squeezed hard enough to have a real effect.
Some observers wonder how steadfast an ally China will be in the future. If war broke out between the North and South Korea how would it deal with the North’s nuclear weapons? Would it seek to quickly impound them? And if it tried to, does its army have the capability of doing so? Or would it tolerate U.S./UN troops crossing the border from south to north to do that job, fearing that the U.S. would then effectively take over the North?
A handful of U.S. scholars, most notably Oriana Skylar Mastro of Georgetown University, who writes in the current issue of Harvard’s “International Security”, believe the evidence shows that China could and would invade if it thought it necessary. She has interviewed two-dozen Chinese scholars – think tank researchers, scientists and military officers – as well as senior people in the main relevant bodies in Washington. From that and a number of international seminars she draws her conclusions.
The U.S. should tolerate a Chinese intervention as being in its own interests. To do the job itself would require nearly 200,000 troops. (It has already in the South a relatively modest 30,000.) Indeed, if necessary, it should provide to China its intelligence and, later, its nuclear demolition expertise. The U.S. should also accept the fact that if there were reunification between North and South China would only agree to it if it didn’t swing a unified Korea against China. This would mean no American troops north of the border.
China has a lot to be angry about. North Korea tests its nuclear tests only 130 km from the Chinese border. The North has constantly refrained from Chinese requests to avoid provocative activities, completing eighty-six missile tests and four nuclear tests. In return China has snubbed the North by courting the South economically. There is no communist brotherhood here.
China has its contingency plans in place in case of a North/South war. China will move troops 50 km across the border. It will probably create two buffer zones. First, to blockade North Korea’s major ports. Second, to intercept and search fleeing refugees and military personnel.
Within that 50 km the North has a good proportion of its nuclear and missile sites – 45% of the former and 22% of the latter. A fast Chinese invasion, carried out at dawn, could capture these sites within the hour.
China would welcome an improved relationship with the South. Chinese experts expect that trade volumes would increase dramatically after reunification. China would be able to export goods across the North to the South. It could use Korean ports, reducing congestion in its own southern ones.
On the other hand China does worry that South Korea would seize that part of the North’s bombs and missiles which are located far from its border with China.
China hears about the ongoing debate in the South about whether to be nuclear armed or not. It should not worry. To possess nuclear weapons itself would be a very extremely unpopular decision among the South’s voters. Moreover, the South would confront irresistible international pressure not to call the North’s nuclear arsenal its own.
Chinese diplomats in Hanoi will be tuning in to the summit as much as they can. The meeting place is probably bugged, and their informants among Vietnamese diplomats are many.
It’s important that Trump is well briefed by the Chinese and vice versa. America has power. But in this situation China probably has the whip hand.
If Trump doesn’t make use of this – with a private agreement from President Xi Jinping to be his proxy – the talks will probably fail. Trump must make use of China’s strength.
Note: For 17 years Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune – and a member of the Independent Commission on Disarmament, chaired by the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. He forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.