The U.S. and China: Why the Sudden Convergence on North Korea?

In the past, China resisted U.S. saber-rattling against North Korea. Now China is threatening North Korea with military action. What’s going on? Why the sudden convergence of U.S.-China threats of military force against North Korea?

China Threatens To Bomb North Korea’s Nuclear Facilities If It Crosses Beijing’s “Bottom Line”.

China also noted that “nuclear weapons is DPRK’s trump card for its defiance of China and the United States. Once this card is lost, it will become obedient immediately.”

The author then speculated rhetorically that if North Korea’s “nuclear facilities are destroyed, they will not even fight back, but probably block the news to fool its domestic people. The DPRK will freak out if its nuclear facilities are destroyed.” And yes, a Chinese author said “freak out.”

The report also said that “the DPRK must not fall into the turmoil to send a large number of refugees, it is not allowed to have a government that is hostile against China on the other side of the Yalu River, and the US military must not push forward its forces to the Yalu River.”

For context, here is a satellite photo of the Korean peninsula: note the black hole devoid of lighting. That’s North Korea.

The difference between North Korea and South Korea is mostly political. Stalinist North Korea has starved its people for decades to support a vast war machine, and kept them ignorant of the broader world. This is slowly changing as smugglers do a brisk and highly dangerous business in banned DVDs and other digital media:

How media smuggling took hold in North Korea (PBS)

Can Smuggled TV Shows Change North Korea? (NY Times)

South Korea’s economy is larger (by some measures) than the economies of nations such as Spain, Australia, Mexico and Russia. South Korea is not just a formidable economic power; it fields a powerful military and has global “soft power” via its media and investment reach. It also has substantial trade with China.

South Korea is a powerhouse, North Korea is a rogue state that has starved millions of its citizens to death and threatens to spark a nuclear war that could impact China very negatively, even if China avoids military conflict.

Which state would you rather be responsible for protecting? Which one is an asset and which is a costly, risky liability? The answer is obvious to all.

To understand the China-North Korea client state relationship, we have to start with the 1950s-era Cold War and the Hot War in Korea 1950-1953. Threatened by the Cold War American presence in South Korea, China viewed North Korea as an essential buffer against invasion from the south.

When allied Western forces occupied virtually all of North Korea in the Korean War, China’s army crossed the Yalu River to force a return to the pre-war border between North and South Korea.

China’s supreme leader Chairman Mao Zedong took the threat of land invasion so seriously that he ordered (at enormous expense) the relocation of critical industrial plants from coastal areas into the hinterlands, the better to distance them from invasion.

China has effectively subsidized and supported the North Korean state for the past 70 years as a buffer against a land invasion from South Korea. China supplies North Korea with fossil fuels and other essentials and protects it diplomatically.

But does this buffer-state strategy make sense in today’s world? The threat is now from nuclear missiles and trade wars, not a land invasion. Though we cannot know what’s being discussed or decided behind close doors, the high cost of subsidizing a rogue nuclear state for the now-irrelevant value of a physical buffer may finally be weighing on Chinese decision-makers.

Then there’s the all-important matter of “face”. The perception of status, influence and power–what’s known as “face”–is the core concern in East-Asian societies. “Losing face” by being revealed as powerless and lacking influence is to be avoided at all costs.

Western analysts often under-estimate the importance of maintaining or recovering lost “face” in Asian decision-making.

Consider how much “face” China is losing in being unable to control its rogue client state, North Korea. China is quite keen on projecting itself as a rising global power, and the dominant power in Asia and the adjacent seas.

So how does it look when a supposed global power can’t even control a client state on its own border? China’s inability to influence, much less control, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and threats gives the lie to its claim of global power.

Even worse, China–the supposed hegemon of Asia–must stand by as the U.S. sails in to deal with China’s rogue client state. In terms of “face,” this drama is telegraphing that the global power is the U.S., not China, which has been reduced to bystander in the stand-off over North Korea’s nuclear threats.

Imagine if the roles were reversed and China had to send its fleet to the Caribbean to deal with a rogue client state of America’s, that America could not control or contain. The loss of face is immense.

It was no coincidence that America’s 11-ton bunker-tunnel busting bomb was deployed in Afghanistan as tensions mount over North Korea’s nuclear threats. The Chinese newspaper report excerpted above noted that the Chinese military knows the location of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, but disabling those deeply buried facilities without resorting to nuclear weapons may be beyond China’s military capabilities.

So China loses face again: not only can it not control North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it doesn’t have the non-nuclear means to destroy them.

In the context of face being lost as China’s inability to control or contain its client state is revealed to all, China has no choice but step in before the U.S. acts unilaterally. In terms of saving face, it would be better to force North Korean compliance before the risk of a nuclear exchange escalates, and China may be signaling North Korea that its patience has finally run out.

China’s leadership may have finally concluded that supporting and protecting a costly, rogue-nuclear buffer state is actually reducing China’s security and rather than enhancing it. It may be time, at long last, for China to engage in its own version of “regime change” as a necessary step to maintaining China’s own security.

From this point of view, the entire drama of American threats of military action may be designed to force China to finally step up and take whatever action is necessary to control its rogue client state.

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  • wunsacon

    Oy. CHS, you are repeating Uncle Sam’s distorted summary:

    >> Stalinist North Korea has starved
    its people for
    >> decades to support a vast war machine, and kept
    >> them
    ignorant of the broader world.

    I ask that you read this and the comments there:

  • Ivan_K


    Stalinist North Korea has starved its people for decades to support a vast war machine, and kept them ignorant of the broader world.
    South Korea is a powerhouse, North Korea is a rogue state

    North Korea built itself from Hiroshima-level of destruction. It’s generally acknowledged that North Korea was economically more developed than capitalist South Korea for close to three decades, until the 1980s. (Who knows how and what it means.)

    “I am Dr. Andrei Lankov. I studied at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Leningrad State University prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as studying at Kim Il-Sung University during the 1980s. Following this, I taught Korean history and language in the USSR and Australia. I currently teach at Kookmin University in South Korea…”

    South Korea is a powerhouse, North Korea is a rogue state

    “First, the North Korean government is seen as ‘irrational and bellicose’. But they are actually very rational and highly successful manipulators who usually get what they want by outsmarting everybody else in the process. And of course, they are not bellicose. Their major goal is their long-term survival.
    As a matter of fact, I wrote my recent book to counter this misconception.”

    Second, North Korea is seen as a ‘starving country’. Some North Koreans are seriously malnourished,
    but starvation is a thing of the rather distant past. The famine that killed between 500,000-900,000 people (not 3 million, which is sometimes claimed) was over by the early 2000s. The food situation is quite tense and this year tougher than usual, but North Koreans are not starving.”

    Third, ‘North Korea is the last surviving Stalinist country’. This might be partially true when we talk about social and political structures, but it is clearly not the case when it comes to their economy. They have a very large and growing private sector.”

    In addition, it happens that the United States are a rogue state that starves people (abroad and now even at home) to support a vast war machine, and keeps its citizens ignorant of the broader world. They appear to be so culturally indoctrinated that even with all the information at disposal, they have great difficulty to learn about the broader world.


    Focus on North Korea: I can only guess why:
    – an untapped market;
    – an un-globalized and anti-globalist country (imagine that)
    – Trump’s misconception that North Korea is really a rogue state (self-projection);
    – his general worry about a war escalation at what is actually a meeting point of the three great powers China, Russia and USA. China and Russia border with Korea. Korean peninsula is arguably the spot most likely to ignite WW3, and that’s bad for business, he must be thinking.

    • Basu Deb

      Knowledge about Stalin gathered from Western sources is mostly dubious. A process of correct re-assessment should start now.

      • Todd Millions

        A good place to start from a western perspective is some of the trade and development deals Stalin negotiated particularly with US corporations in the late 1920’s and early 30’s.
        The oil deals are well known but-
        The RCA contract for a Pan Soviet Union high frequency wireless aircraft guide beam system combined with a telex/telephone “Trunk”-was very advanced and vital.The reason foreign help was sought was to get knowledge of how to make consistent and so replaceable range vacuum tubes. A black art secret at the time.
        After RCA screwed over Stalin on this aspect”Pay us the $50 million(in gold),and we will show you how to make(consistent range) in our New tubes,not yet released!”
        This matter he had being warned about-was never brought up around him again.
        And the Great patriotic war was fought with radios that had to be custom built around the
        widely variable performance of each individual tube in the set.
        After the Czech and German radio tube factories were”-Liberated”,and the management sent to free vacations east of the Urals-this situation quickly changed of course.
        I would like to know how this was tied to Therons fate? Why these setbacks seem to have not stimulated(that I know of) the early lead work done in the Soviet Union to develop -“Tunnelling Diode”crystals to replace the tube based electronics?

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  • Jill

    “In addition, it happens that the United States are a rogue state that starves people (abroad, and now even at home) to support a vast war machine, and keeps its citizens ignorant of the broader world. These citizens appear to be so culturally indoctrinated that, even with all the information at disposal, they have great difficulty to learn about the broader world.” (taken from part of Ivan’s comment)

    Ivan, I totally agree with this statement. I am at a loss as to why American citizens, in this case, CHS, is recommending regime change for N. Korea. The same arguments (with tweaking) are good for regime change in the US. I think it is past time that one country gets to decide regime change for another country.

    I’m looking around and I can honestly say, that with a few exceptions, regime change would be totally justified in many nations. This would include the big one (US) and our BFF’s, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It’s not like these are sterling examples of free, open and good nations who act with justice towards their own people and other people in the world.

    There absolutely needs to be a mechanism for people to resolve unjust leadership wherever it occurs. This does not include invasion by other nations.

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  • It is an asset, not a liability, to have an aggressive nuclear client state as a “cat’s paw”. Potentially that means the attacker can attack strategically by proxy, or even nuke by proxy, something no other states can do.

  • batsond

    In the U.S. geopolitical context, Korea has always been about China.

    During the Vietnam war more U.S. bombs fell on Cambodia than Vietnam.
    In April 2017 more cruise missiles hit Syrian back yards than the targeted airfield.
    China’s concern is that should a nuclear exchange take place with North Korea,
    U.S. missiles will “accidentally” find their way to strategic Chinese locations,
    on Chinese soil.

    China could end this game in one move, although at a cost, by giving away
    all of its U.S. Treasuries. In the span of several seconds China could destroy
    the war machine’s currency and ability to pay for its wars. However, this
    might also force the empire into an all out hot war. This currency threat
    is most likely the origin of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”, a move probably not
    appreciated by the Chinese, considering their history of being at the
    receiving end of Anglo Gunboat Diplomacy.

    China’s strategy has been to “wait and see” hoping the empire’s currency
    would collapse on its own, without China’s help.

    China’s only move seems to be “invade and occupy North Korea” before the
    empire does, which would maintain the “North Korea / South Korea” stand-off
    while giving the empire more time to collapse.


    All wars are economic, the proof is simple. Look at Rwanda, a country with
    no economic interest to the empire. The Rwandan genocide counted just
    under one million murdered human beings, the UN didn’t lift a finger, the
    empire didn’t launch a single cruise missile.

    The escalating stages and weapons of war are:
    (1) Attack the Currency. If this fails, go to step 2.
    (2) Attack/Block Trade (aka sanctions). If this fails, go to step 3.
    (3) Military action, the last resort.
    * These stages certainly have similar analogues in domestic class warfare,
    as in the one being waged against American citizens.