The nuclear-armed slave state North Korea poses an enormous challenge to American policy in East Asia—but also offers an opportunity to deter a greater threat in the region: Xi Jinping’s increasingly belligerent Communist China.
There’s no disputing the fact that the world would be a better place without the Kim family’s murderous regime. The country’s human rights abuses are savage in nature, its state funding is secured through an array of criminal enterprises, and its recklessness makes a catastrophic regional conflict a daily possibility. Its habit of lobbing missiles in the general direction of Japan is, let us say, less than neighborly. Of late, North Korea has increased the pace and visibility of its development of strategic weapons by test-firing nuclear warheads and launching missiles from platforms like trucks and, disconcertingly, submarines—a tactic that could, in coming years, threaten the American mainland.
But even though North Korea’s behavior is unforgivable, America and its allies show through their actions that they are in no hurry to change its government. This is because no one wants a regional conflict if it can be avoided, because North Korea’s modest nuclear arsenal vastly raises the stakes of such a conflict, and because North Korea is protected by its only friend in the region, China. The general international consensus is to deter Pyongyang from attacking its neighbors, to pressure China from time to time to adopt a tougher approach, and to wait for something to change the strategic calculus on the peninsula—like, for example, the implosion of the Kim family’s rule.
However, in the midst of managing this apparently intractable challenge, there is an opportunity that deserves more attention. Western policymakers are frequently annoyed by China’s lack of will to pressure its diminutive, reckless client, noting (correctly) that the Chinese are themselves often frustrated by how irresponsible Pyongyang’s actions are. But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government is reluctant to take a tough line with Kim Jong-Un not because it somehow fails to understand its own interests, but because it understands its interests all too well. The collapse of the Kim family in North Korea doesn’t pose just a general threat of regional chaos, but makes possible a nightmare scenario for Beijing: the extension of South Korea’s American-backed democratic regime up to the Chinese border.
Add to this possible outcome the intertwined ideological roots of China and North Korea’s communist regimes—a factor that shouldn’t be ignored considering the nationalist, ideological direction Xi is taking China—and one arrives at a critical observation: China is just as much stuck with the Kim family as everyone else is. It would obviously be easier for China if Pyongyang could be just a little less genocidal, a little less reckless, a little more predictable, while remaining a client and ally. But, to channel Donald Rumsfeld, China has to build regional hegemony with the North Korea it has, not the North Korea it might want or wish to have.
China’s inability to do what the international community considers "the right thing" on North Korea forces it to retain a lasting diplomatic liability on its books—and this is a liability that America can exploit. Arguably, we already are. The United States will, after a long delay, soon deploy a sophisticated air defense network to South Korea—a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or "THAAD" system—in order to shield our ally from a possible North Korean missile attack. Interestingly, China furiously protested this deployment, so strongly that it seemed at times they might succeed in stopping it. Considering the vast amount of continuing American support for South Korea, why was Beijing so upset? Because what can shoot down a North Korean missile can shoot down a Chinese missile, too. THAAD deters not only North Korea’s potential to strike the South, but also restricts China’s options in the event of a conflict with the United States.
It’s not the case that China necessarily has plans to launch a sneak attack against South Korea. But Chinese aggression in the South and East China Seas, not to say Xi’s strategic goal of ejecting America from the region and establishing a Chinese sphere of influence, tragically make an armed clash with Washington far from unthinkable. In planning for this, it would be malpractice for the Chinese armed forces not to take into account the U.S. troops deployed in South Korea, as well as the military potential of our South Korean allies, however reluctant Seoul might be to clash with China.
Hence, Beijing’s fury over THAAD—and yet, its protests failed in the end. Administration officials have addressed Chinese complaints by noting, perhaps disingenuously, that the sole purpose of THAAD is to deter North Korea, and that the deployment has nothing to do with "third party nations." America is already redeploying other forces to the Pacific as part of the widely hyped (and arguably over-hyped) "pivot" or "rebalance" to Asia. But the dynamic over THAAD shows how we can go about deploying or surging, as needed, more potent weapons platforms to Northeast Asia. Just as THAAD can protect South Korea from missiles fired from any country, so can, say, more deployments of Aegis-equipped ships protect Japan from attacks from any country. The same goes for the deterrent power of any nuclear-armed bombers that we might consider basing in what China refers to as the "first island chain."
The United States doesn’t strictly need a pretext to deploy or base more military assets in the region, but presenting such moves primarily as responses to North Korea’s reckless behavior disrupts any Chinese effort to portray such American behavior as aggressive or destabilizing. In response to any such Chinese complaints, all the U.S. government needs to say is that North Korea presents an existential threat to its neighbors, and we stand by our allies. We could add that if China doesn’t like these deployments of powerful deterrents, it could do the right thing and pressure North Korea to change its ways—which we know it is powerless to do.
When we observe that an adversary faces a challenge or an obstacle, we should ask ourselves how we might exploit that situation. It’s not clear that Washington makes a regular enough habit of this. How much serious thinking has gone into how to leverage Pakistan’s fear of India into improving its behavior in Afghanistan, or the liability that disconnected Kaliningrad presents to Moscow in the event of a conflict in the Baltic region? North Korea’s regime is dangerous, criminal, and repulsive. Nevertheless, the longer-term threat to the Pacific’s liberal order is an increasingly belligerent China, which must be deterred—and its complicated relationship with Pyongyang can be used against it.