China’s role in deterring Kim Jong-un from developing a long-range nuclear delivery capability is very important. But it is how the United States responds to the North’s threat to destroy South Korea that is critical. The Chinese are watching.
China has interests in the consternation that North Korea causes the United States and its allies. The Chinese have managed this situation masterfully for a long time, and so far, nothing has caused them to change their approach. U.S. attempts to persuade Beijing that it is in China’s interest to clamp down on North Korea only will be effective if the Chinese perceive U.S. and allied activity clearly makes the situation unacceptable, even more dangerous, for China.
The United States can refuse to accept a North Korea with intercontinental range capability and destroy its capabilities on the ground or shoot down any test missile deemed too advanced. The North Korean threat of all-out war on the peninsula is credible, and a U.S. response makes war more likely. China has learned to live with these calculations. A kind of mini “balance of terror” has been in place for decades.
China and North Korea have not had to live with the real possibility that North Korea will cease to exist as an effective aggressor. Conventional military balances carefully have been maintained to sustain managed tension at the 38th parallel. Nuclear solutions that would counter a quick and possibly decisive Northern offensive have been all but ruled out.
China would not want to deal with a situation that ensured the destruction of North Korea. This would be especially unacceptable to China if, at the same time, the balance of power in the entire region began to change. U.S. and allied posture can be altered to cause the Chinese to recalculate the clever, passive-aggressive stance they now have regarding the Korean situation. The Chinese could be faced with a conventional war disaster on their border that they may be able to prevent.
Military power with capacities to drastically and immediately reduce the North’s artillery threat to the South and decapitate the regime, to include beefed up U.S. and allied naval forces already deployed there, and clear statements of intent to dominate any North-South confrontation are in order. Some changes of posture in U.S. forces in Korea, designed to reflect this intent, would be effective signals. The deployment of THAAD missiles to South Korea, for instance, has gotten China’s attention.
There must be less reliance on the hope of China seeing the wisdom of deterring North Korea without first seeing a real threat of an unwanted change in the military situation. The United States is on the right track with its recent build-up in the region, but it must act even more decisively and show willingness to permanently alter the military calculus in the region.
Currently, the United States has 28,000 troops playing a “trip wire” role. This makes no sense and plays into the current Chinese calculation. It is a very out-of-the box notion, but reductions in U.S. troop presence accompanied by the introduction of serious short-range weaponry (some manned by South Koreans) aimed at reducing North Korean artillery would get the China’s attention.
This combined with a permanent naval presence off Korea—including persuading the Japanese and other nations to participate—would go a long way toward forcing China’s hand to dissuade North Korean aggression.
Captain Kime is a career strategy and policy specialist.