Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the Chinese city of Dalian on May 8, 2018. Photo: KCNA via KNS and AFP

As North Korean President Kim Jong-un walked across the border at Panmunjom on April 27 for an inter-Korean summit with the president of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, and both signed the historic agreement titled “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” the magnitude of China’s strategic victory perhaps was not grasped fully.

Both Korean leaders declared that there would be no more war on the Korean Peninsula, gave the thumbs up for national reconciliation and committed to complete denuclearization. President Moon agreed to visit Pyongyang this coming autumn.

With the no-war agreement between the Koreas, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that Washington will discuss with allies and Pyongyang the need to retain American troops on the Korean Peninsula; first with allies and then with North Korea. Referring to the dialogue with North Korea on denuclearization, Mattis says the US will need to improve upon confidence-building measures if it is to go forward on the issue of stationing US troops on the Korean Peninsula, as reported by Chinese media.

During the ASEAN China Forum held under the aegis of the ASEAN Institute of Policy Research in Seoul from December 11-12, 2012, India too was represented; 70 of the 200 delegates invited were Chinese.

Chinese speakers such as retired General Pan Zhenqiang, adviser to the China Reform Forum, and Li Yonghui of Beijing Foreign Studies University openly advised South Korea, in the presence of US panelists and audience members, to break free from its alliance and tell the US that South Korea could look after its own security. The message was clear – get the Americans out and accept Chinese ownership and supremacy in the South and East China Seas.

Danny Stillman and Thomas Reed (a former US secretary of the air force) in their book The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation allege that China intentionally proliferated nuclear technology to risky regimes.

In his interview with US News, Reed alleged that China, under Deng Xiaoping, decided to proliferate nuclear technology to communists and Muslims in the Third World based on the strategy that if the West started getting nuked by Muslim terrorists or another communist country without Chinese fingerprints, it would be good for China.

If the book is correct, it explains why China gave nuclear technology to Pakistan and North Korea. It would also fly in the face of the conventional wisdom – disseminated by the US Central Intelligence Agency, other constituencies on Capitol Hill and the punditry – that has convinced US presidents, including Donald Trump, that China was not behind North Korea’s nuclear tests.

It is generally believed that North Korea got its nuclear reactors from Russia and its nuclear weapons know-how from Pakistani scientist A Q Khan, but this book strongly hints at the China factor.

What reinforces the likelihood that China is lying is that while it raised a host of objections to exposures in Reed’s book, they were all withdrawn after he stated in press briefing after release of the book that it was based on discussions with Chinese scientists.

Donald Trump’s threat to use force against North Korea did not suit China, because US-North Korea tensions had forced Beijing to divert attention from its ongoing militarization of the South China Sea. That is why President Xi Jinping personally urged Trump to exercise restraint on North Korea

Trump’s threat to use force against North Korea did not suit China, because US-North Korea tensions had forced Beijing to divert attention from its ongoing militarization of the South China Sea. That is why President Xi Jinping personally urged Trump to exercise restraint on North Korea.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated on August 7 last year that Beijing had completed its South China Sea reclamation activities two years earlier. But Beijing continued to reclaim land further north, in the Paracel Islands. All this while the US remained ambivalent.

Now a stage has been reached where top US Navy commander Admiral Philip Davidson says only war  could stop China from taking full control of the South China Sea.

The efforts by the US and the United Nations to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program with sanctions failed because of Chinese support for North Korea. Not only were some 23 Chinese companies operating inside the country, China established a special economic zone (SEZ) right on its border with North Korea.

Chinese and Russian companies invested in North Korea’s Rason SEZ established in 1992. Mongolia has also joined the venture. Work began in 2011 on building transmission lines that will provide Chinese electricity supplies in the zone. By last November, some US$595 million in investment had been established in Rason SEZ, but trade sanctions have restricted development and trade. Yet China remains the No 1 trade partner and investor in North Korea.

Both countries anyway are connected by rail and road. Besides, even during the latest round of additional sanctions, Chinese ships continued supplies to North Korea (though it is not clear if seaborne refueling activities of North Korean vessels took place with Beijing’s sanction).

If the US thought North Korea was not China’s proxy or the dragon’s nuclear talon, it was perhaps naive or deliberately looked away, fearing confrontation. Rather than only breathing fire like a dragon, China also follows python tactics of mesmerizing, gripping and swallowing the victim gradually.

The UN Security Council established the UN Command in South Korea as a unified command under the US in accordance with UNSC Resolution 84 on July 7, 1950, in response to the North Korean attack against the South. US Forces Korea (USFK) is a sub-unified command of US Pacific Command (USPACOM). It is a joint headquarters, with major USFK elements comprising the 8th US Army, US Air Force Korea (7th Air Force), US Marine Force Korea (MARFORK) and Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR) – comprising some 23,468 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in South Korea; a major presence.

National reconciliation of the Korean Peninsula is unlikely to happen overnight and the reunification of the Koreas is even more distant given the economics involved – albeit China would like to see it happen with Chinese characteristics and may very well offer considerable funding.

But complete denuclearization of North Korea remains doubtful, with the possibility of China safekeeping some North Korean nuclear weapons. So far, Seoul and Washington are saying that their Mutual Defense Treaty is unaffected by North Korean developments, so USFK will remain.

But it is no secret that Trump seeks to reduce defense costs, and USFK may end up a pawn in Pyongyang-Washington negotiations. Naturally, the US has the option of relocating its troops from South Korea to somewhere else, but would thereby lose much clout in the Western Pacific.

All said and done, the Korean Declaration of Peace and National Reconciliation looks like a strategic victory for China.

Prakash Katoch

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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