East Asia: North Korea’s Growing Aggressiveness Strategically Analysed


By Dr Subhash Kapila

North Korea’s growing aggressiveness unmindful of the incendiary proportions that its brinkmanship can ignite, does not arise from the delusionary mindsets of a Communist autocratic dynasty, but it arises from a calibrated strategy operated in tandem with China’s increasing aggressiveness in East Asia, noticeable in the last year.

Historically and presently too, North Korea’s growing aggressiveness and brinkmanship arises not from any inherent strength of North Korea but arises from an unremitting underwriting by China of North Korea’s strategic delinquencies. Both in the United Nations and other forums, China has shielded North Korea from retribution for its aggressive acts.

For far too long, has the United States strategic timidity in East Asia encouraged China to politically and militarily coerce its smaller neighbors as part of its overall strategy of loosening their mutual security linkages with the United States.

The United States strategic timidity has arisen from its “China Hedging Strategy” born out of a misconceived assumptions that China like in the 1970s can in the future once again emerge as a a quasi-strategic ally of the United States to confront a resurgent Russia. Further, a misperception that has long lingered in the United States policy establishment is that China could emerge not only as part of the solution of the North Korean problem, but also as a positive partner in the management of Asian security and stability.

China and North Korea both stand emboldened to indulge in military brinkmanship with the United States and US allies like South Korea and Japan, secure in the belief that the United States would be held back from stern responses to North Korea military provocations, arising sheerly from reasons of ambiguity that plagues United States strategic postures against China.

The United States is held back also because of a sizeable “China Lobby” in the United States with disparate agendas, comprising giant US multi-national corporations with business interests in China, a sizeable section in US think-tanks which perceive that Russia is a larger threat to USA than China, and a sizeable section in the academia who as usual harp on theoretical postulations of conflict management and conflict resolution. They advocate that China could be turned around with more sustained engagement.

United States strategic calculations get also distorted because of a segmented analysis of strategic intentions of China and North Korea. In all strategic analysis of North Korea’s increasing aggressiveness, the usual reasons advanced are that this aggressiveness arises from an ongoing power struggle in North Korea, North Korean economic collapse and North Korean attempts to blackmail the United States into giving more aid to an impoverished North Korea.

This clouds the real challenge to the United States from China which is strategic in essence and is misread by a papering -over of this challenge by laminating a veneer that North Korea as a “rogue state” is the main threat in East Asia against the United States, forgetting the crucial reality that it was China which has strategized the emergence of North Korea as a “rogue state”.

It is high time the United States strategically recognizes that it must begin viewing China as the most significant military threat in East Asia to United States national security interests and US forward military presence in East Asia.  The time has come for the United States to adopt integrated perspectives that the prime threat to the United States and its allies in East Asia rests on a coordinated and calibrated China-North Korea joint strategy.

With the above as a backdrop, this Paper would like to analyze the following strategic aspects:

  • North Korea: China’s Proxy Strategic Instrument in East Asia against the United States.
  • North Korea: High Time for the United States to Deal Sternly with Aggressive Acts and Brinkmanship.
  • China is a Part of the North Korean Problem and NOT a Part of the Solution.

North Korea: China’s Proxy Strategic Instrument in East Asia against the United States

China over the years has become masterly adept at creating “regional spoiler states and rogue states” as China’s proxies to militarily belittle the United States on China’s behalf by strategic nibbling brinkmanship provocations. North Korea and Pakistan need to be seen as China’s strategic proxies.

Less of a coincidence and more as evidence of China-North Korea collusion, has  emerged the pattern in the last year or so, of  Chinese and North Korean military provocation and aggressiveness in East Asia, seemingly acting in tandem, primarily against the two major bulwarks of  United States security architecture in East Asia, namely South Korea and Japan.

China still overtly is not militarily capable of confronting and taking on the United States on the strength of her existing military assets. China has now begun realizing that the military vacuum in East Asia caused by US military distractions in Afghanistan and which permitted China to force Japan and South Korea to politically modulate their policies to be accommodative of China’s sensitivities, is slowly evaporating.

The United States belatedly recognizing the above trend resumed her traditional strategic and military postures in East Asia by encouraging Japan and South Korea to stand upto China and North Korea.

China today stands presented with the above trend coupled with a growing consciousness that behind the scenes in Washington, a reappraisal of China’s strategic postures and intentions is underway, and which may lead the United States to dispense with her hedging strategies against China.

In terms of China’s strategic options against the United States, short of war China can be expected to increasingly use North Korea as a handy proxy to strategically belittle the United States in East Asia.

North Korea as China’s strategic proxy against the United States provides China with a plausible deniability exit and an opening to wriggle out of direct confrontation with the United States.

North Korea: High Time for the United States to Deal Sternly with Aggressive Acts and Brinkmanship

The United States in arriving at responses to North Korean aggressive acts and brinkmanship needs to answer itself the following questions: (1) Can the United States in terms of securing its long-range strategic interests in East Asia and globally too, permit China’s strategic challenge to go unchallenged? (2) Can the North Korean aggressive acts and brinkmanship patently against South Korea and Japan, but with the United States as the intended target, go unchallenged and without stern responses by the United States? (3) Can the United States afford a significant denting of its strategic image and strategic will in East Asia by North Korea acting as a proxy of China against the United States?

The United States in the course of the last year has been seen as wavering in terms of stern responses against North Korea, leaving its military allies with suppressed fury at US impotence. This was most evident in the wake of the CHEONAN incident where the United States in face of China’s objections changed the location of the Joint Exercises, to placate China.

North Korea in every aggressive incident has been allowed to get away by the United States not out of fear of North Korea but by United States’ uncertainty of China’s reactions over disciplining of its “rogue nation ally”.

The United States has to reckon with China as its prime strategic threat and the United States can ill-afford to postpone that day of reckoning. The red lines for China need to be drawn firmly by the United States to dissuade use of “rogue nations” as proxy instruments in the furtherance of China’s Grand Strategy. The Korean Peninsula and North Korea should be the first theatre where the United States needs to draw red lines for China.

Therefore as a first concrete step by the United States in this direction, the United States should ready itself to unleash stern military responses against North Korea from now onwards and not persist and continue to take refuge behind timid responses like economic sanctions.

China is Part of the North Korean Problem and NOT a Part of the Solution

Shackled for far too long by its “China Hedging Strategy”, the United States became a captive of the misperception that China could be enlisted to discipline North Korea. It has not unfolded that way at all.

If China was a responsible stakeholder in East Asia security and stability and more specifically in not contributing to make the Korean Peninsula a “nuclear flashpoint”. China would have not directly been involved in building up North Korea’s long range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons capability.

That China did so, is a strong indicator of China’s intentions to forge North Korea as a strategic pressure point against the United States.

Let us now turn our attention to the Six Party Talks towards negotiating a denuclearization of North Korea in which the United States hoped and expected that China would play a significant role. Nothing constructive has emerged in the last six years. China for strategic reasons has not stopped North Korea in its tracks, fully conscious that the international community knows that China could do so, if it wanted to do so.

China in the last five decades and more in the last three decades with its phenomenal economic growth could have assisted North Korea’s economic stability. On the contrary China has let North Korea downslide into greater economic impoverishment. This would ensure North Korea’s overall dependence on China and its continuance as a willing tool of China’s proxy strategic designs.

Strong strategic imperatives exist for the United States to dispense with its “China Hedging Strategy” and recognize the harsh strategic reality that China is the most significant part of the North Korean problem and NOT a part of the solution of the problem.

Concluding Observations

Historically, the Korean Peninsula has persisted as an explosive global flash- point earlier arising from its outsized conventional military strengths and lately with that strength coupled with North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons arsenal.

China in all these decades has underwritten the building up of North Korean conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities which impart to North Korea its propensity to indulge consistently in provocative aggressive actions and brinkmanship, as China’s proxy.

That an economically impoverished state can indulge in such provocations and where possible reprisals could be provoked from the United States amply indicates China’s hand and support for such destabilizing strategies by North Korea.

The strategic challenge to the United States on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia is not North Korea but China and the United States needs to get fully alive to this glaring strategic reality.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst.  He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.  Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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