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How best to respond to the North Korean aggression? Get China to condemn it.

Gérard Roland, E. Morris Cox professor of economics and professor of political science | November 23, 2010

The North Korean provocation on Yeonpyeong Island is the most serious in a long series of provocations going from the buildup of a nuclear program to the recent Cheonan boat sinking incident. It is an open aggression with civilian casualties. President Lee Myung-bak immediately reacted by threatening with strong military retaliation by South Korea. He fell into the trap laid by the North Korean regime and I hope he will understand this very soon.

Any military retaliation by South Korea would by necessity be limited and could not achieve any military objective. The US is not prepared to intervene to support a South Korean intervention, let alone risk further increase in its tensions with China. A South Korean military intervention would eventually only strengthen the bond between China and the North Korean regime. China would condemn South Korea and expand aid to the economically moribund North Korean regime. North Korea would stand to gain.

There is however a second trap laid by the North Korean regime. If South Korea reacts by reinstating the sunshine policy and toning down the condemnations of the North Korean regime, then it will appear weak and give the message that North Korea can bully South Korea into giving it the economic aid it needs to maintain its oppressive regime. There are many voices in South Korea advocating for such a move. They claim that the toughness showed by president Lee Myung-bak against North Korea has failed and led to a more aggressive stance in Pyongyang. By reestablishing ties with North Korea and providing economic help, the hope is that Pyongyang will feel less threatened and behave in a more peaceful way. This would be a big mistake. It would show to North Korean leaders that aggression and provocation can lead to concessions from Seoul and that bullying pays off.

What is then the best answer to the North Korean aggression? There should be strong international diplomatic pressure on China to openly and unambiguously condemn the aggression.

In the case of the Cheonan boat incident, China could abstain from condemning Pyongyang by pretexting that proofs of the North Korean aggression were needed. In the case of the Yeonpyong island attack, it is obvious to all that North Korea is the aggressor. China does not have this pretext anymore. The only pretext it could find is if there is retaliation from South Korea. If the South Korean government can stay calm, then North Korea will have fallen in its own trap. Getting China to condemn the aggression would further isolate North Korea. China understands that it is not in its best interest to unconditionally support the North Korean communist regime. It is interested in a nonnuclear North Korea and is not ready to lose diplomatic capital by supporting North Korean aggressions against South Korea. That is however not enough. China would prefer to stay silent. It must be made clear to China that there is a strong diplomatic cost of not condemning the North Korean aggression. Silence would be the equivalent of support. The more aggressive the North Korean regime is, the more pressure should be put on China by the international community to condemn North Korean aggressions and provocations. The more the North Korean regime loses open support from China the closer it is to its own doom.

Comments to “How best to respond to the North Korean aggression? Get China to condemn it.

  1. China cannot and will not intervene. The only reason their economy is growing at 9 percent per annum is because of these very countries it would be fighting. China’s last resort will be one more sabre rattle and then strengthening it’s southern border and prepare to wave over it’s backyard fence at it’s new neighbor. China is all about image, if constatly pushes it’s peaceful rise ideology, it constantly tries to paint itself as the pushed around underdog that is just defending it’s position. China simply will not be able to get the global reconition to justify defending an aggressive country like NK. The fact is that China is more aligned economically and politically with the US than NK. NK in fact, is a dying breed of country that just hasn’t resorted to a terrorist state quite yet. They share nothing in common with nobody. The are a throwback cold war Russia wannabe that is 50 years too late.

    China will posture and then fold. Just watch.

    • The attack on Yeonpyeong Island has demonstrated how much North Korea would like to trade Chinese support for a grand bargain with the United States. China’s rise and the country condoning North Korea’s attack on the South Korean corvette, Cheonan, bullying Japan over the Senkaku Islands and continued claims over the “South China Sea,” including the Spratly Islands, continued currency manipulation amidst trade surpluses with developed nations suffering from a Great Recession, pushing Vietnam into an embrace with the United States demonstrates how China is unwilling to be a regional leader.
      North Korea has now come to symbolize how China is more concerned over her interests — stability in the northeast –than those of her smaller neighbors, and major China-investor, major trading partner, South Korea.

  2. While I can see the point of letting strong nations fight their own battles. But if the US were to pull out of S Korea, Japan, Germany, it would hurt relations with those nations, especially those on the Asian front. You have to remember that Japans military is still a “Defense Force” regulated by the treaty of WWII. Japan could not be capable of defending themselves in the Asian front if the Koreas re-engage in war and China intervenes. As for the US pulling out of S Korea, that leads to the impression of S Korea being abandonned and shows a weaker S Korea. Even if the US doesn’t intervene in a conflict between the two, the location of US forces on the peninsula is a huge deterrent to the north. The actions of both Koreas are a battle between themselves, but a full out war will surely bring China, Japan and the US in to the war.

  3. Actually, I think the best response is to remove US bases from S Korea. S Korea is a major industrial power with significant military strength. They also have, like the Japanese, the ability to make a deliverable nuclear weapon on a short time scale, say 5 years. They should do so. The American people have repudiated empire, and want America to come first. The money spent on stationing 50,000 troops on Korean (Japanese, and German) soil would allow us to cut back significantly on military expenditures, which should be directed at high tech weapons capability, both manufacturing and research, and upgrading our own nuclear arsenal.

    S Korea is a big boy now. Time to let him fight his own battles.

  4. I think we are jumping the gun a little, I think they are waiting for all the reactions in the US to be exhausted, then they will send an email to Pyongyang.

    Besides, condemnation is not enough. South Korea is a major non-NATO ally and if China doesn’t intervene, the only thing they will be producing for the West is easy targets. The Western world has proven time and time again the the gloves do in fact come off. To China, North Korea is not worth any more that the land it is sitting on, or more importantly, what it sits between.

    Besides, any condemnation from China would most definitely be insincere to I doubt an increased “isolation” would occur. This incident just proves that polical theorizing and posturing is coming to an end. Who is ready to fight a REAL war?

  5. I like this approach, knowing when to remain silent is good for nations and for individuals. Falling into to their/your own-trap is the best medicine.

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