How China Sees the Next 'Korean War'

A soldier salutes during a military parade in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Americans must get up close and personal with China’s perspective on the issue.

To be sure, the rhetoric of the past few days has been unprecedented and disturbing. Even if neither side resorted to nuclear weapons, the amount of conventional armed might—not to mention chemical weaponry—in proximity to major civilian population centers is quite sufficient to determine that a war on the Korean Peninsula could take the lives of millions. Now, Beijing has also hinted in its own way that it too is “locked and loaded” in the event that the United States strikes North Korea first, underlining that the Second Korean War could even spark a tragic great-power conflagration of epochal proportions. Yet, at the same time, it’s also plain that actions speak much louder than words, and that all the bombastic rhetoric might well amount to a somewhat logical prelude to intense negotiations, rather than an overture before nuclear catastrophe. Let’s hope so.

In this Dragon Eye column, I have long argued that North Korea is paramount among Asia-Pacific security issues, and that China is absolutely critical to any resolution (or even management) of the matter. For that reason, it behooves Americans to get “up close and personal” with Chinese thinking on the subject. An excellent primer is the English-language survey paper by Fu Ying, vice minister of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, that Brookings published back in May. It turns out that Chinese foreign-policy analysts and military strategists have a whole panoply of nuanced viewpoints on the subject of North Korea and what to do about it. There are even some optimists left in Beijing, for example Renmin University professor Jin Canrong, who wrote in a May 12, 2017, editorial, “The most likely possibility after North Korea ‘is possessing a nuclear weapon’ is that it has an even larger ‘poker chip’ to take into negotiations.” He added, “If North Korea would be really willing to abandon nuclear weapons, then the scenario of Trump inviting Kim Jong-un to eat hamburgers might well be possible. That would be a great achievement for Trump.” (如果朝鲜真的愿意弃核, 特朗普请金正恩吃汉堡的场景不是不可发生. 这将成为特朗普的一大成绩.) I will take on the challenging subject of developing a full typology of Chinese foreign-policy viewpoints on North Korea in my next Dragon Eye installment, but this edition will focus rather narrowly on the evolving military calculus on the peninsula.

As the wise Hugh White has written, one must sometimes fully envision a tragedy in order to avoid it, so that it turns out to be vitally important to “think the unthinkable.” This is done quite often now, and usually arrives at the same banal, yet fundamentally correct conclusion: that there is no military solution and that conflict must be avoided. Still, it is interesting and perhaps important to see if Beijing’s thoughts on the “unthinkable” are in line with Western appraisals. You would not find Fu Ying or even Jin Canrong discussing the details of a military scenario on the peninsula, but a series of in-depth articles in the June 2017 issue of the military magazine Naval & Merchant Ships [舰船知识] takes up a number of these sensitive questions.

The first of these Chinese military analyses articulates the rather terrifying notion that President Trump might seek a military conflict that would help to “distract attention from internal contradictions [转移国内矛盾].” It is noted that a U.S. president’s power in the foreign-policy realm is much greater and, moreover, that those powers are vastly increased across the board in wartime. However, the more interesting part of this analysis is the appraisal of North Korea’s military capabilities. Here, it is stated that the North Korean military may be weaker than often appreciated, because it has even “lacked basic fuel and ammunition for military exercises [缺乏基本的训练油料和弹药].” The article suggests North Korean artillery has limited range, and there is said to be a paucity of short-range missiles. Moreover, according to this analysis, the North Korean military is simply not equipped with an “active offensive capability [主动进攻能力].”