North Korean leader Kim Jong-un salutes his troops. Photo: Reuters via KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un salutes his troops. Photo: Reuters via KCNA

The “Minutes to Midnight” clock tracing relations between the US and North Korea has ticked closer to 12 now that the Hermit Kingdom has shown the world that its missiles do not always blow up just above the launch pad, or merely plop ignominiously into the Sea of Japan. The successful launch of a weapon able to strike Alaska  prompted these headlines in The Wall Street Journal: “US tells North Korea it is prepared to go to war” and “North Korean missile tests Trump”.

Not only is US President Donald Trump tested: Chinese President Xi Jinping is equally challenged. As North Korea’s Hwasong-14 rocket soared 4,000 kilometers high, Xi’s eyes were focused on his chessboard: He was putting Horseman Putin into the game.

They met in Moscow, where they agreed to bolster each other in mutual support, strengthen coordination in respect of the Korean Peninsula (they use that unifying nomenclature to signify the war isn’t over and to support North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s threat to absorb the South).

The meeting, said Xi, supported an understanding that the Chinese-Russian relationship now had reached the “best time in history” to advance. He went on to say China and Russia were now each other’s “most trustworthy strategic partners”.

Xi went over the top, claiming that talks between the Best Friends Forever resolved issues “left over from history” along their 6,900km  border, making it a bond of friendship.

Chess master Xi moved his media pawns prior to the Moscow event. Wenxuecity on April 15 said Kim’s missile test(s) were a reaction to US aircraft carriers off the Korean coast in the Sea of Japan. (The Hwasong-12 tested then was the big booster first stage needed to make the July 4 vehicle truly intercontinental.)

The article went on to say that Kim sought a “people’s peace”; North Korea is not Syria – it has greater fighting power and a better claim for action. Kim’s purpose is to show the limit of US power in Asia, but in so doing, he tests the endurance of China. (Is the Newspaper Pawn’s use of the word “endurance” a message from Xi telling Kim to step back?  Trump has used the very same word to describe Japan’s state of mind.)

Sina, another Chinese news source, perhaps also in the chess game, remarked that the possible deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), a US-sourced anti-missile system, in South Korea caused Beijing to “interrupt” (another nuanced word) its economic, political and military relations with Seoul.

Liberty Times, a third possible pawn, suggests that China’s “chill Korea” policy led it to close down its outlets for Lotte, South Korea’s big-box and online version of Walmart. Seoul is complaining to the World Trade Organization.

China’s unhappiness with THAAD allows 2017 to mark a final putdown of the ongoing Korean threat to China’s home culture and way of life. Media pawn No 4 Baike covers the same issue, and reports China’s general pushback against the substantial inroads (deep into another part of the chessboard) made over the past 15 years by South Korea’s pop culture. Korea’s youthful, invasive and pervasive music, fashion and flash are in politically incorrect contrast with the somber mood symbolized by the dark suits and combed-back hairstyle favored by Xi and his associates.

Media not under the control of China’s Grand Master – in this case the British Broadcasting Corporation’s China outlet – say South Korea’s squishy new president views the situation as one that will prompt even him to evoke unspecified countering action.

Any number of pundits have observed that Trump’s phrase that Japan and South Korea will “endure” is a way to test the degree to which China’s real interests are aligned with Kim’s. We say “Kim’s” to distinguish him from his country. If Kim’s interests are separable from the possibly linked interests of North Korea and China, then a solution to the emerging crisis may be possible that will not leave American fingerprints.

In other words, we say that all parties know that China’s real strategic counter-party is the United States. They are the only pair of nations capable of assuring the stability of China’s border with the Korean Peninsula (thus serving China’s essential interest).

Our solution

Perhaps by way of a secret cross-Pacific codicil, China and the US separate Kim from North Korea, but keep the peninsula separated. Such a behind-the-scenes agreement uses US military super-technology, manned by Chinese troops. There is no need for heavy, public US military intervention. The US would have deniability, and could publicly deplore what could be termed a Chinese coup aimed at preserving the 38th-parallel border. American desire for a unified peninsula is not an essential interest: Kim’s removal is.

A cross-Pacific Chinese/American semi-secret partnership, the messy bits obscured from public view, means the now-dangerous chess match will end in a draw, with nobody knocking down the board.

The rough outline of the balance of interests includes a takeover by China of the nuclear facilities, including command, now controlled by Kim and his sycophants. The former leaders are removed. They are given a choice: Live in quiet, comfortable retirement exile somewhere in Asia (where American forces participate in “looking after” them, guaranteeing good behavior), or don’t live at all.

Everyone accepts a divided peninsula. China cannot countenance a quasi-American presence on its border. North Korea could, at best, expect to evolve into a Hong Kong, after trade opens with the South.

Most important (for both China and the US) is, surprisingly, a closer relationship between South Korea and China. We may have buried our lead here. Xi knows well, and said as much during his visit to Moscow, that the Belt and Road Initiative he proposed in 2013, to build economic infrastructure linking Asia with Europe (even Africa) in the manner of the old Silk Road, is China’s smooth road to economic efficiency, productivity, development, technological advance and capital accumulation.

He knows that for China to achieve its destiny it must build toward innovation, evolution, bootstrapping – whatever words best describe what South Korea has done for itself since the end of open war with the North.

During his Moscow visit, Xi said China’s growth was advanced by trade in high-tech products, partners’ investment, sophisticated finance and (perhaps on Xi’s side) farm exports. South Korea and China can easily trade such products along a new Silk Road.

This solution to today’s Korean Peninsula crisis allows China to develop friendly relations with a free-standing but more Asia-centric South Korea. The South’s own interests are well served after the North has been defanged, and natural trade routes North are opened.

Knowing that Mr Trump’s America will not stand in the way – indeed, will know that its interests are well aligned with those of the now peaceful peninsula – will ease the transition.

Let’s remind ourselves of uncomfortable Chinese and American national-interest realities. A North Korea run by Kim or his associates will never give up its already existing nuclear assets. Removing him and shifting his assets into China’s hands would not significantly change the international distribution of striking power. Allow Kim to remain in place and things will change to everyone’s dismay, except for Kim.

But give up America’s hope for a “free and united Korea”? Think about it. The US would never allow its next-door neighbor Canada (to pick an unlikely candidate) suddenly to become closely associated with China. But that is just what a unified “free-market/Westernized” Korean Peninsula would mean for China.

So the West must accept a divided (but tame) Korea. If China, after expelling (or otherwise) Kim sets up an obedient vassal in his place, the West should see a double benefit – China then owns any disorder produced by a recidivist North Korea. If China tried to unite, on its terms, the pacified peninsula, the West could retaliate and provoke social unrest that would be, if nothing else, costly for China to suppress.

US not going away

China cannot uproot US power in Asia. Asians have wished to diminish Western influence ever since the 19th century when colonial nations – Britain, France, Portugal – set up trading centers in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Macau. Although Japan learned enough about modern industry to defeat (an admittedly technologically inept) European Russia, by 1945 everyone saw that Asia’s most technically advanced nation was not yet robust enough to “finish the job”.

After World War II, while the old colonial power diminished, the United States established itself, via its technical, organizational and productivity advantage, as a presence strong enough to survive the Korean War, the Vietnam War and (so far) the emergence of modern China.

Unless and until China learns to be equally innovative, productive and nimble, Asia, for the time being, must accept a US presence. In particular, China must accept a close connection between Japan (China’s only potential local adversary) and the US. It is irrational for China to think Kim’s North Korea can truly offset a still-competent Japan. And the Japan/US alliance is secure. The Americans will go to war to maintain it.

Likewise, China cannot yet itself rid itself of its reliance on trade with the US. In the present crisis, China should insist, as part of the price that must be paid to get rid of Kim, that it freely receive trade-driven transfers of technology and managerial and organizational skills, including firm-level “secrets” for local “rule of law” relations between capital and labor.

The final outcome will allow China to make the final jump to modern, innovative productivity adoptions and “inventions”. In the long run, such a transformation will allow China to realize its destiny as a full superpower. At the same time, the United States accepts a divided Korea, a China that is fully equal to it (and maybe more if the West falls into lassitude). But the US is not driven out of Asia, and it need not go to war.

And so, suggestions by China’s friends that the US and South Korea quit their joint military maneuvers should be ignored by Xi, and Trump should not expect that Kim’s bombs will go away but rather that they will be put in safekeeping by a responsible nation.

The end game: a draw

Xi’s international stature will grow if he forces Kim into exile (even if the process involves secret American help) and takes over, quite literally, North Korea’s nuclear assets and personnel. The US will not need to use its military to pacify the region, and will, at least for the short run, improve its trade balance to the degree that it exports more technology than beef.

Until the present moment, now that the threat clock is so near the stroke of 12, the obvious elements of common interest and the absence of conflict between national interests have been inadequate to move the main players, China and the United States, toward a mutually agreed solution: more or less peaceful elimination of Kim Jong-un, the continued existence of North Korea as a ward of China, an expansion of South Korea’s trade and social interaction with the rest of Asia, and Asian acquiesce to American presence in their affairs.

The reason is national pride: Neither China nor the US wants the other to be seen as the victor, as the chess master who has forced the other to resign from the game. But other players – not so much players as rowdy onlookers – like Kim and Vladimir Putin have tricked both East and West into needless confrontation, so as to allow Putin-types to appear more significant than they really are. But our proposed end game – a draw – allows everyone but the rowdies to breathe easy, while the game evolves to its next play date.

In chess played at this level, a draw until the next match is better than an upset board.


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Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.

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