Should China Support the U.S. in a War with North Korea?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On August 9, U.S. President Donald Trump warned North Korea that if it does not stop threatening the United States, it will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Just hours later, the North Korean army said in a statement that it is “carefully examining” a plan to strike the waters around Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory which hosts a large American military base. And while it’s unclear if Pyongyang was responding to Trump’s comments, or whether both countries are engaged mainly in a battle of inflammatory rhetoric, the possibility of a military conflict between the United States and North Korea now appears more likely than it has been in decades. As it often does in moments of high tension, China’s Foreign Ministry called on all relevant parties to avoid the possibility of intensifying conflict or “escalating the situation with words or actions” and continue to pursue a “political solution.” Should tensions between the U.S. and North Korea continue to worsen, or in the still unlikely event of a military conflict, what is China likely to do and what should it do? —The Editors


In the face of North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and missile development and President Trump’s escalating rhetoric in response, China has once again called on all relevant parties to “avoid remarks and actions that could aggravate conflicts and escalate tensions.” While arguably right on the merits, Beijing’s words are of little consequence in practice. They are the diplomatic equivalent of teardrops at the scene of a house fire.

Beijing’s response to this latest period of elevated tensions follows a pattern of timidity and unassertiveness toward North Korea, in marked contrast to its approach just about everywhere else in the region. Beijing’s caution is eroding its ability to protect its own strategic interests on the Korean Peninsula.

In recent years, China’s relations with both Pyongyang and Seoul have become increasingly strained. North Korea has actively defied Chinese pressure aimed at curtailing its nuclear and missile programs, even going so far as to conduct missile tests at times of maximum embarrassment to Beijing (in February 2016, around Special Representative Wu Dawei’s visit to Pyongyang; in September 2016, during the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou; and this past May, during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing). North Korea has executed Jang Song-thaek and assassinated Kim Jong-nam, two individuals whom China likely viewed as potential hedges against Kim Jong-un’s rule. As North Korea has become a source of friction in China’s relations with the United States, the U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral alliance has deepened, with Japan and South Korea each welcoming new U.S. missile defense capabilities. Meanwhile, the risk of conflict on the Korean Peninsula has only increased.

A dispassionate analysis invites the conclusion that trends on the Korean Peninsula are not conducive to Beijing’s strategic interests. Beijing’s preferred response, a “dual freeze” of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and U.S.-South Korean combined military exercises, offers little hope of reversing recent trends. On the contrary, by equating North Korean nuclear and missile tests with longstanding and transparent defensive exercises in the Republic of Korea, China is harming relations with the United States and the Republic of Korea without gaining any abatement intentions on the Korean Peninsula.

Rather than double down on its existing approach, Beijing may benefit from heeding a lesson drawn from its experience in the Iran P5+1 negotiations, where progress proved possible only when the international community stood united in its pursuit of an attainable goal and Iran was under stress. The more Beijing is able to catalyze unity of effort among the five principal parties (U.S., Republic of Korea, Japan, Russia, China) for a realistic objective, the better the odds of reaching a peaceful and diplomatic solution, an outcome that would serve Beijing’s strategic interests.

The Chinese government has not yet made the strategic shift to viewing the growing North Korean nuclear threat as more dangerous to its own security than a possible collapse of the Kim regime. I taught in Beijing for two months this spring and learned that many in the Chinese public and expert community, however, have made this shift to thinking that it is time to cut off Pyongyang. For example, see Zhu Feng’s article in the July 11, 2017 Foreign Affairs.

They believe that Kim Jong-un is endangering Northeast China with seismic shocks and possible fallout from nuclear testing and has insulted China by brutally assassinating Kim’s older brother, Kim Jong-nam, who lived in Macao under Beijing’s protection. It’s rare that Chinese official foreign policy deviates to this extent from popular opinion.

My hunch is that official policy is driven as much by domestic political calculations as by national security ones, especially during this period when everything in China is dominated by Xi Jinping’s determination to consolidate his position in the 19th Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) Congress that will occur in Fall 2017.

Traditional ties with North Korea remain important to older People’s Liberation Army officers and Communist Party central leaders. As they see it, North Korea is the enemy of the United States, and they would feel uncomfortable standing with the U.S. against North Korea. Many Party leaders may also worry that if North Korea’s communist government falls, it would make China’s own communist government more isolated internationally and more at risk domestically.

One Chinese expert even suggested to me the improbable scenario that if the North Korean communist regime fell, Chinese people could come out on the street in celebration and head for Tiananmen or Zhongnanhai to challenge C.C.P. rule. Given this focus on preserving the power of the C.C.P. and Xi Jinping himself, it’s unlikely that the Chinese government will be willing to cut off oil supplies or commercial trade with Pyongyang. The only thing that might drive Beijing to abandon the regime in Pyongyang is future nuclear testing that mobilizes the public, and expert opposition to government policy.

When it comes to wrangling North Korea’s relentless march toward becoming a nuclear power with an ICBM delivery system capable of hitting targets in the U.S. as well as in South Korea and Japan, the common wisdom is that Washington has no good options. In this case the common wisdom is right. Now with a frustrated President Trump blustering that if Pyongyang does not stand down, it will be met “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” the world is left wondering what Trump actually intends to do that would not get Seoul reduced to a pile of rubble. The truth is, short of starting a war, Trump’s options are severely limited.

However, if Washington has no good options, Beijing is in a different, situation where President Xi Jinping, who lately has been extolling innovation, could reap a bountiful strategic victory... if he were up to taking a few modest risks.

One of President Trump’s few claims-to-diplomatic-fame is his alleged acumen at “deal making.” Alas, to date, prize international deals have eluded him and there is no greater deal to be made than a grand bargain with China that would also have the virtue of helping to distract from all President Trump’s myriad other troubles.

By happentance, of all the international wagers he has had to ring-master during his half year in office, President Trump has actually played the China game with as much deftness as any other. Although his tweets and statements have been all over the lot, in practice he has more or less followed the very reasonable prescriptions laid out in U.S. Policy Toward China, Recommendations for a New Administration, written by the Task Force on U.S.-China Policy (convened by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and the 21st Century China Program at U.C. San Diego). The Task Force’s recommendations called on the Trump Administration to make every diplomatic effort possible to rally China to the cause of squeezing North Korea through economic sanctions, while at the same time opening the door to possible discussions with Pyongyang, even to negotiations on resolving the contentious issues left behind by the Korean War and a divided country. Even as Trump trumpeted hellfire and destruction against Pyongyang, when President Xi did not decisively deliver against North Korea , President Trump went relatively gently, tweeting, “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”

Then, as he grew more disappointed in his new best friend, he began chiding President Xi for his reluctant response. On July 5 he tweeted: “trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us—but we had to give it a try!” On July 29, when it looked like Xi was not going to reciprocate his ardent Mar-a-Lago wooing, President Trump again tweeted: “I am very disappointed in China…China could easily solve this problem!” But still, he wisely left the door ajar for Beijing to become more pro-active.

And they did.

On August 5, Beijing came on-board the latest round of United Nations sanctions. Yes, it comes late in the game, and yes, they may not do the trick. But the important point is that Beijing moved, once more, and Donald Trump is now tweeting such things as: “After many years of failure, countries are coming together to finally address the dangers posed by North Korea. We must be tough & decisive!”

The important question for President Xi to ask himself is this: Why not go all in with Trump and win some real credit? Why not shut down the oil pipe line; stop both Air China and Air Koryo flights to Beijing and Shenyang (the main routes into North Korea from the outside world); cut off all banking services; and even stop all rail traffic from China into North Korea?

Yes, Beijing fears a collapse of the Pyongyang regime, instability and a possible flood of refugees. And these dangers are real. But the benefits to Beijing of a U.S.-China rapprochement could be far greater. By propitiating President Trump with the deal-of-all-deals, not only would President Xi give increasingly fraught relations with the U.S. an enormous boost, but he also could help establish a new sense of common interest. What is more, “dealmaker Trump” would most assuredly be so appreciative that he would anoint his counterpart with substantial reciprocal concessions in other areas that are extremely important to Xi, namely in the so-called “core interest” areas such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and in bilateral trade disputes.

Indeed, in appreciation for China’s having agreed to U.N. Resolution #2371 there are already signs that President Trump is softening his stance against China on banking and trade issues


If President Xi were to keep going in making concessions on North Korea and, in effect, forge a much closer alliance with President Trump and the U.S., would such a deal be in the overall interests of the U.S.?

Not really. While such a strategy might win Chinese cooperation on the vexing Korean nuclear question, the U.S. would doubtless have to make so many radical concessions in other vital issue areas that it might end up compromising our own larger strategic interests and result in a pyrrhic victory. However, that does not mean that Donald Trump would not—if offered such a deal—view it in his own selfish interests to jump at it. After all, he urgently needs some large success to distract from all his recent failures and all the investigations that now threaten to undermine his presidency. And, when it comes to “interests,” President Trump has shown little capacity for putting the interests of the U.S. ahead of his own.

However, if President Xi seizes this moment, not only would he win Trump’s devotion, but plaudits elsewhere in the unnerved world as well. Here we may end up seeing tested both the limits of President Xi’s appetite for strategic innovation and President Trump’s ability to put his nation’s interest above his own.

China’s response so far to the ongoing standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is more than moderate and low-key. And it tells us a lot about how China sees the nature of the current crisis and its calculus on national interest.

North Korea has been seen as a kind of “litmus test” in the U.S.-China relationship. How much China heeds the U.S. counsel to contain North Korea’s belligerence, inevitably, hints at the power jostling and nudging between the world’s number one and number two economies, respectively. It also reveals the degree of their strategic convergence in Asia. In this vein, China’s response to the current standoff between Trump and Kim Jong Un would indicate China’s choice for its best strategy to neutralize the pressure coming from the U.S. (Trump once said “North Korea is China’s responsibility to solve”) and also to maximize China’s regional interest.

In the end, we may again likely come to witness the old ritual; China only goes so far as to display the appearance of cooperation with the U.S. (so that it can avoid the wrath of Washington, such as designating China as a currency manipulator), while continuing to enable North Korea’s existential survival. For instance, the former was China’s joining the U.S. in the recent U.N. resolution to mete out punitive measures in protest against North Korea’s ICBM test. It was seen as China’s display of goodwill, a gesture toward the U.S.; Trump commended it. However, China also insisted (and succeeded) in dropping the crude oil embargo from the list of U.N. sanctions—that was China’s effort to protect North Korea.

Regarding the latest Trump-Kim standoff, the Chinese government called for “calm” on both sides, without taking a side. That’s more than a moderate response, given the grave nature of the crisis that may escalate to a war.

China also reached out to its favorite (dis)information tool, The Global Times, whose editorial read, “If North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral.” Washington and its allies attached a keen interest to the part where it said “China will stay neutral.” They interpreted it as Beijing’s warning to Pyongyang that it won’t intervene in the conflict between North Korea and the U.S. Thanks to the Western media’s hype about the Global Times news story, China is seen cooperative, seen allied with the U.S. The Chinese goal was to shape the perception of the audience. The news story served the goal well.

We should keep in mind that the Global Times statement is a rhetorical statement, not a policy statement. More importantly, there is no evidence that this is the Chinese government’s official position. The Chinese government has not given any confirmation to the U.S. government regarding what it will “actually” do in case a war really breaks out. China knows well that maintaining strategic ambiguity in a situation like this will make the U.S. “think twice” before embarking on a war with North Korea. During the Korean War, the U.S. didn’t expect China to intervene to assist North Korea. It proved wrong.

For a long time, the U.S. has been making painstaking efforts to help China “realize” that North Korea is a strategic liability, not an asset. It hoped that someday China would also finally come around and begin to see North Korea as a common threat. The problem with this approach is that it feigns ignorance to the fact that China perceives the U.S. as its biggest existential threat to its security. Compared with the U.S., North Korea is a smaller threat to China. Furthermore, China sees North Korea as a problem to manage, not an enemy to destroy. This aspect has been consciously or unconsciously ignored by the West. As one Chinese scholar put it, “They don’t get it.”

Regardless of whether Trump wages a war against North Korea or not, China sees that the current crisis serves China’s larger strategic interest: the decline of American leadership and the tarnishing of America’s reputation in the region—even among America’s allies such as South Korea and Japan, allies that are scared by Trump’s war rhetoric. China sees Trump as a “useful idiot” that helps speed up China’s rejuvenation as the world’s supreme power.

I asked a Chinese interlocutor, “Why does China keep its arms folded and not actively mediate the U.S.-North Korea crisis?” He said: “You should ask Americans why they keep their arms folded and not mediate the current China-India crisis?”

China’s inactions (just like America’s inactions) tell a lot about China’s strategy. As China’s leadership often says, China will do what is best for its own national interest.

Finally, perhaps a better question to ask is not “Should China Support the U.S. in a War with North Korea?” but “Should America support a solution that avoids a war with North Korea?” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said America tried everything with North Korea. He said, “All the efforts of the past 20 years on North Korea have failed.” That’s not true.

North Korea has been demanding a peace treaty with the U.S. since 1974. Washington hasn’t tried this option yet. Sitting down with North Korea doesn’t mean rewarding North Korea’s bad behavior. It’s the beginning of finding a diplomatic solution.

The nuclear war of words between President Trump and North Korea is utterly inimical to China’s immediate and long-term strategic interests. Indeed, it has never been clearer that China’s decision to prioritize stability over denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is self-defeating. As Trump and Kim escalate their fiery rhetoric, they are narrowing their options for short-term de-escalation, and this worrisome cycle threatens to trap China too. The reality remains that neither the United States nor North Korea has an incentive to launch a deliberate attack on the other, knowing the devastation that conflict would cause. The most serious risk is that these threats will lead to accidental or inadvertent military escalation by way of misperception. This would presumably begin through a lower-level conventional clash, but could escalate from there, bringing to pass the precise situation China has sought to avoid for decades. If the possibility of full-blown conflict rises, China will have to consider how and when it will intervene to try to stabilize the situation. And even if the United States and North Korea never approach the conflict threshold, which they presumably will not, the mere prospect of conflict damages China’s interests. North Korea’s threats to fire missiles over Japan have alarmed the Japanese population, and raised the chance that Tokyo would play a role in a Guam contingency. The tensions have also tied the hands of the newly-elected President Moon, who is inclined to be much friendlier towards China and pursue diplomacy with the North. If Pyongyang is trapped in an escalatory cycle with Seoul’s closest ally, however, that conciliatory pathway will vanish. This all comes just a matter of weeks before China’s 19th Party Congress. There are few worse times for China’s leadership to be shocked into an emergency Korea reappraisal or to be forced to contemplate a military intervention to secure a refugee influx and loose nuclear weapons.

In the long-term, these developments are strategically noxious for Beijing. They raise the risk that Tokyo adopts more expansive defense policies, revising its constitution and pursuing long-range strike capabilities, and they are a catalyst for renewed defense cooperation between South Korea and Japan, despite the recent chill in their relations. The escalation makes it more likely that the United States will seek to deploy more missile defenses in the region, and that it will be difficult for President Moon to work collaboratively with China. Moreover, rhetorical snarl halts a fortuitous and unfettered run for Chinese foreign policy. The political shock of Trump’s election and his administration’s mercurial engagement with Asia had left China in a plum position. It faced little pressure in the South China Sea despite coercing Vietnam, no intervention in its border tensions with India, and claimed the mantle of regional economic leadership through the failure of TPP and the launch of its Belt and Road Initiative. This North Korea hysteria arrests Beijing’s positive momentum and lays bare its fraught role in the long-brewing crisis.

For China, the costs to propping up the North Korean regime are quickly mounting. China’s calls for restraint from the United States and North Korea are both totally warranted and likely futile. One of Trump’s motivations for bombast, however reckless, is likely his desire to scare the Chinese into action. This has been his “strategy” for North Korea since his days as a presidential candidate. On August 12, however, a Global Times editorial suggested that China’s leadership was thinking more seriously about how to mitigate tensions. The editorial warned that China would not aid North Korea if it launched an attack on US soil, but promised to intervene if the U.S. struck first. This declaratory policy—assuming it has official imprimatur—is stabilizing, as it reduces the incentive for either side to use force first. If Beijing seeks to defuse the situation further, it should comply with the international commitments it has already made. It could, for example, take immediate action against Chinese banks and companies that continue to support North Korea’s military programs—the same entities that were targeted in the new “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act.” Beijing will not soon abandon its preference for stability on the Peninsula, but it can send swift signals of its intention to play a more constructive role in good faith. Going forward, the United States and China must have regular, if quiet, dialogues to contingency plan for regime collapse and other forms of instability on the Korean Peninsula.

With the world watching, North Korea achieved a significant nuclear and long-range missile capability. It will not part with either any time soon. Ironically, this may make it modestly easier for Washington and Beijing to cooperate, as the Kim regime can now guarantee its own survival. The United States must reinvigorate its efforts to contain and deter Pyongyang, with an eventual goal of pursuing diplomacy. China has a role to play in each of these steps. As its nightmare scenario has become more likely, this bombastic war of words has shone a spotlight on Beijing’s flawed strategic choice but has also illuminated an alternative path. North Korea’s weapons may be here to stay, but China’s fretful patronage need not be.

A professor friend reminded me of the year 1964 last night. Then, a “madman” as they called him, had managed to acquire an atomic bomb and threatened America in unambiguous terms to use it. Washington was helpless and eventually had to grudgingly accept that this leader had made his country a nuclear power and given it the ultimate bargaining chip. The rest is history.

His name was Mao Zedong. Despite the rhetoric Beijing never had any intention of using the weapon. It was however the basis for China’s existence, and America made the first step in 1972. What followed were economic reforms, and today the country has joined the club of modern nations in the world, something that would have been unthinkable in the early 1960s. It sounds like a playbook another leader might be trying to make his own.

Kim Jong Un must have read history and think he can apply the same strategy in 2017. His rhetoric is as sharp as the Chinese leader’s 53 years ago, and his objective is the same. For him to find his solace with Beijing or Moscow paving his way has outlived itself. By targeting America so viciously as he does now he wants to drive the Trump administration into submission and force it to negotiate peace a la Kim directly with Pyongyang.

Like Mao, Kim wants America’s recognition that he is an equal power that can impose his will on whoever and whenever he wants to, by way of his own bargaining chip. He is going after America, because it is the big dog in this otherwise complicated game. And if the big dog were to cave, North Korea would ascend to share the status of a superpower with the very few in this world, or so he must think.

As sensitive as this situation has become, much like with Mao in the 60s, I don’t think Kim will ever escalate beyond rhetoric and sinking missiles to the bottoms of the surrounding oceans, let alone consider using his arsenal. If he was this history student and emulator of a Mao-esque strategy, he would equally be an existentialist underneath his posturing, i.e. not as mad as people fear.

North Korean history prescribes that the man has a game plan that was handed down from his grandfather and father, and it is beyond the objective to solely be acknowledged as a nuclear power. The weapon is solely the basis for everything else, like with Mao. We should expect there to be a vision of what his place in the world is to be and how the Korean peninsula is meant to evolve over time.

Whether it is still true or not, and international opinions diverge on that point, Kim’s ultimate objective is to cut a peace deal with Washington that secures Korean reunification, and clearly he would think that he has the upper hand in this. The question is whether he will get what he needs to eventually reform his country and make it a self-sustaining construct. Blackmail has worked in the past with previous U.S. administrations.

As much as Kim wants to make this an exclusive stand-off between him and Washington, it is too simple. To be sure, Kim must have been rejoicing seeing Donald Trump so easily taking his bait and trying to copy-cat him as a madman. However bizarre this war of words has become, it appears Kim is ahead in this game. He just needs to escalate the exchange of blows further, and he will be deemed the superior madman and closer to winning.

It is next to impossible for America to deliver the first physical blow. The U.S. no longer has a military option. The cost would be huge, and loss of life probably unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes. Kim knows this all too well and continues to poke. And again, all signs indicate he is not suicidal but someone with a very unusual and risky plan to achieve greatness, or what he perceives that to be.

Kim will eventually have to pace himself, however. After all, he is no Mao Zedong. No one in their right mind will agree to a unified Korea under Kim’s rule and with a nuclear capability—not America, not China, not Russia, and least of all South Korea and Japan. But walk away again with something from this current impasse he likely will, whatever fire and fury Donald Trump has been promising him.

As dissatisfying as it may sound, and Trump will end up eating crow, the best option looks to be keeping the status quo and its quasi-historical stability, and continue building further defence capabilities in South Korea and supporting China to both keep North Korea economically alive and in check. That’s all there is.

Despite the hawkish rhetoric by both President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, I still believe the headline here—Should China Support the U.S. in a War with North Korea?—is too hypothetical. To say just one word: it will really depend on how it started, who started it and in what way.

While some still think a military option is viable and believe it’s China which will suffer most, as Ambassador John Bolton wrote recently, I suggest they first go to ask people in South Korea and Japan.

I would like to think that there is enough wisdom for a diplomatic solution through talks and negotiations. Many people cite the failure of past talks and suggest that talks won’t lead to a solution. Instead, they believe the U.S. should push for more sanctions and further isolation of North Korea, as acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Susan Thornton said in her recent testimony in the Senate.

Past talks have failed, but this does not mean future talks will fail or fail completely, too. John F. Kennedy said in his moon speech that “we choose to go to the moon… not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” Americans should not be the people who give up easily.

Many in the U.S. think only of U.S. interests and never try to put themselves in other’s shoes. For example, many in the U.S. Congress want to push for more secondary sanctions on Chinese banks and companies, so that China will surrender. In fact, such U.S. actions will only destroy the mood and trust for cooperation on the Chinese side and make the future cooperation on the issue less productive. Maybe this is exactly some interest groups, such as the military industrial complex, want.

A lot of Americans believe that it is the pressure from the U.S. or the P5+1 that forced Iran into the deal in 2015. They forgot one important factor—that Hassan Rouhani was at the time the Iranian president, not Ahmadinejad.

China has done a lot trying to bring a solution to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, including cooperating more than ever with the US on sanctions at the UN Security Council. Current Chinese and DPRK top leaders have not exchanged visits so far, something that many Americans fail to recognize.

However, while seeking Chinese help, the U.S. has not heeded Chinese recommendations for a dual suspension: North Korea halts its nuclear and missile tests and the U.S. and South Korea halt their large military drills. Many Americans argue that one is legitimate and the other is not. If it could lead to a possible solution to such an important issue, why not give it a try instead of haggling over some optics?

Despite Pyongyang’s numerous violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear and missile tests, the U.S. has an obligation to address North Korea’s security concerns. After all, it’s the U.S. removal of Libya leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 after he gave up his nuclear weapons, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 ,for alleged possession of WMD, that has destroyed the credibility of the U.S. government. So, when Secretary Rex Tillerson made assurances to the North Koreans last week, it really rang hollow. Besides, we know that President Trump would overrule any cabinet members, with just a tweet.

The same applies to China to some extent. Chinese do not oppose Korean reunification, but they do not want a unified Korea that is hostile to China, a U.S. puppet state, with U.S. troops stationed along the Yalu River.

Many Chinese also feel that the U.S. is rallying regional countries against China on issues such as the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea. If the U.S. is ready to stab China in the back, then why China should do so much more while the real issue and real confrontation is mainly between the DPRK and the U.S., the two countries that refuse to talk to each other.

From a U.S. perspective it is striking that to date China has taken an unambiguous firm stance on only one aspect of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. Even as North Korea tested bombs and missile delivery systems, China very forcefully sought to force South Korea to reject, and then having not rejected it, to abandon, THAAD. The South had to accept a major economic disruption from government-promoted boycotts of her exports to China if she chose to defend herself against a grave threat from the North. China showed its priorities very clearly here; the North’s right to develop offensive nuclear armaments to deter extremely low probability military threats from the U.S. was more accorded more legitimacy than South Korea’s right to deploy a defensive shield against a real and imminent threat.

One issue that is not yet touched upon in the discussion here is reports that Chinese companies are providing direct support to North Korea’s nuclear industry. International sanctions to apply economic pressure on the North are a necessary step at this time, and China’s support of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2371 was a welcome step. However if the U.S. presents evidence to China that Chinese businesses are selling materials and technologies that contribute directly to North Korean nuclear weapons development, refusal by China to block those transactions would be a very serious failure.

Two long-term perspectives should be kept in mind. The fact that North Korea has become a nuclear power in defiance of the non-proliferation treaty, from which it withdrew, and developed the capacity to use those weapons against its neighbors will have consequences for the security strategies of those neighbors. Just as India’s nuclear weapons led Pakistan to develop her own, and Israel’s contributed, if not led, to Iran’s development of its own capacity, North Korea’s will put pressure on both South Korea and Japan to consider response in kind. That won’t happen at once, but it is not difficult to foresee such actions, particularly in Japan’s case. Is China prepared to accept a nuclear-armed Japan?

Secondly, one has to question the suggestion that China feels compelled to support North Korea for ideological reasons, as a fellow Communist Party-ruled nation. As an empirical matter, that would suggest that China would also feel compelled to support Vietnam, but there is no evidence that these ideological concerns are a factor in Sino-Vietnamese relations. But even more, I don’t know any Chinese people who see the North Korean Workers Party’s nepotistic totalitarian rule over an impoverished country as anything other than an embarrassment for socialism and for China.