North Korea: Just Who's Pulling the Marionette's Strings?

Which is the one big power to gain from the U.S.-North Korean stand-off?

January 8, 2003

Which is the one big power to gain from the U.S.-North Korean stand-off?

The Bush Administration has egg all over its face — and a very hard time wiping it off. Ever since the announcements by the North Koreans of their nuclear escapades, administration officials have provided manifold explanations for why it is right to go after Iraq, while North Korea is being soft-balled.

For all the intellectual artistry involved in the effort, that is an untenable position. After all, North Korea is a likely nuclear power — and a "founding member" of President Bush's "axis of evil."

Under those circumstances, referring the prickly matter of handling the volatile North Korean situation to the international community is tantamount to having the war-minded Bush Administration turn itself into a peace-loving Carter Administration for the occasion.

But with all the hoopla surrounding North Korea's provocations, nobody seems to be asking the two key questions: Why are the North Koreans pushing their brinkmanship to levels previously unseen? And who stands to benefit from it?

If you believe that it is the North Koreans themselves, dream on. Sure, the conventional view is that Kim Yong Il is up to his usual games, engineering a crisis to extort food, oil and other concessions from South Korea, the United States and other countries.

But what is different this time around is that the North Koreans have become much more aggressive, even to the point of rattling their nuclear saber at the world community.

It is hard to imagine that they feel so emboldened without having received — implicit or explicit — backing from a real big boy. Say, a friendly country that will protect North Korea from any severe reprisals from the United States.

What's really intriguing in all this is North Korea's timing. With the United States gearing up for war with Iraq, it could not have made its noises at a more embarrassing moment for the United States.

That shows an uncharacteristic degree of political sophistication. While one can only speculate, it clearly seems to be beyond the pay grade of Kim Jong Il.

All these signs seem to indicate that the whole affair is the smart handiwork of a much more capable power, one that wants to embarrass the United States on the global stage and stands to benefit from tensions on the Korean peninsula.

This power, of course, is China. In fact, China must feel that by showcasing the absurdity of the Bush Administration’s “Iraq über alles” strategy, it ultimately does the world community a favor.

After all, by historical traditions ranging back for centuries — China is highly skilled in the art of politics and intrigue as a tool of global power projection.

And China stands to benefit quite nicely from the North Korean crisis. First of all, in one fell swoop the Chinese have caused the Bush Administration to be pinned down for all of the following criticisms:

— That it is promoting an unacceptable double standard.

— That it is obsessed about Iraq (and oil, which North Korea lacks).

— That it is pulling in its tail in Asia (which, in Chinese eyes, is supposed to be ruled by China anyway).

— That it is determined to root out evil in the Muslim world, but not other areas.

— And, finally, that it pounces on weak regimes, but that its yearning for moral clarity and combating of evil can be deterred even by a second-rate (at best) military power.

Second, knowing that the United States can and will not go to war against North Korea, the Chinese stand to gain diplomatically as well. They are North Korea's most important ally (if one can call it that) — and thus play an integral part in any U.S. effort to contain Kim Jong Il's regime.

Irony of ironies, playing along with the United States in that "containment" effort also buys China a lot of goodwill — and quite possibly a number of other concessions. For example, energy-hungry China might be jockeying for a top position to develop oil fields in post-Hussein Iraq.

In any event, the contrast to the early days of the Bush Administration could not be greater. Back then, the main U.S. obsession was not Iraq — but the question of how to contain a rising China. By playing up the North Korean threat, China is making sure that U.S. attention will stay focused on other countries even after Iraq may be finished.

For all these reasons, it sounds quite plausible for China to have had a hand in nudging along the North Korean crisis.
But, one can ask, is such a strategy rational — given China's economic dependence on exports to the U.S. market? It may not be so, but then again states do not always act just in their own best commercial interest.

China's government — despite its front-like appearance in the images from old communist days — is far from monolithic. It might also be a useful reminder that there are certainly enough hawks who would like nothing more than to throw sand into the gears of the American juggernaut.

All in all, the case of the North Korean marionette is a useful exercise insofar as it reminds Westerners — who by now are in some awe of Chinese capabilities in the manufacturing arena — that the same can be said of China's grand skills in the foreign policy arena.

There, the Chinese are undeservedly still considered as little better than bespectacled and bumbling post-Maoist farmers in blue suits.

Therefore, if the North Korean situation teaches us anything, it is this: Never underestimate the Chinese leadership’s ability to pull masterful strokes on the global piano. By pulling the North Korea card, they have handed the Bush Administration an impossible task.

Even if many Americans — unlikely to challenge their President's foreign policy decisions due to the strong wave of patriotism — are inclined to believe their government about how Iraq is really different from North Korea, nobody in the rest of the world really does.

Finally, the North Korean crisis is helping to chip away at U.S. credibility in the world and it is even leading to tensions between the United States and its allies in Asia, such as South Korea and Japan. All that suits China just fine.