The China Nuclear Connection

by PETER HUESSY August 15, 2017

In late July, North Korea again demonstrated its capability to range the entire United States with another ballistic missile test. Just this week, the DIA determined the North Korean regime can indeed make a warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile. As a result of these actions, the debate in the United States intensified over how we should respond.  

The range of options is considerable, although all rest on widely different assumptions and understandings of the origin, nature and purpose of the North Korean rockets. And that is part of the problem facing American policy makers.

We are not all singing from the same sheet of music.

For example, does the North Korean missile program represent Pyongyang's quest for regime security based on the idea the United States is gunning for using military force to secure regime change?

Are the missiles capable of reaching the United States on a reliable basis, or are they part bluff and part overt propaganda? Is the quest for a denuclearized Korean peninsula a pipedream, better now jettisoned? Or is such a prospect within our reach if we, the United States, show "maturity" and reach out to make a deal with Pyongyang?

Is the threat that North Korea would launch a nuclear armed missile at the United States fanciful because everyone understands such an attack would engender a massive retaliation leaving North Korea in ruins? Or are the missiles for coercion and blackmail or even an EMP type attack that could be launched surreptitiously?

And finally, isn't it true that China, as much as the United States, the ROK and Japan, wishes the North Korean nuclear program would go away, and all seek a reasonable lever with which to get Pyongyang's attention, or is the Chinese regime complicit in the North's nukes and missile development?

Such is the conundrum in which American officials find our North Korean and our nuclear non-proliferation and counter-proliferation policy.

How should we unravel this puzzle?

My views on this are informed by my two years as a student at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea. I had the privilege of studying under Professor Hahm Pyong Choon, who would go on to be both the Ambassador to the United Nations and United States, as well as the chief secretary and adviser to the President of the country.

In his lectures to us three American students, (since having grown to 500 foreign students now attending the Yonsei-affiliated Underwood International School), he emphasized that North Korea's premier ambition was to reunify the Korean peninsula under its rule.  Sadly, and tragically, he was murdered in a North Korean terrorist attack in Burma that killed most of the ROK Cabinet during a state visit.

Also, important to my outlook is my professional work with General Mike Dunn, the past President of both the National Defense University and the Air Force Association. He developed a ten-step North Korean pyramid which included at its pinnacle the reunification of the Korean peninsula under Pyongyang's communist rule.

General Dunn should know-he served in the Headquarters of the United Nations Command and U.S. Forces Korea, and was the lead negotiator for the U.S. at P'anmunjom.

As he told me, he had interviewed the highest ranking North Korean defector ever and asked why the North was building nuclear weapons. Showing surprise, the former chief of North Korea's parliament -- believed to have been a mentor to the last North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and a confidant of his father, Kim Il Sung -- Hwang Jang-yop told General Dunn the North has nuclear weapons to prevent the United States from defending the ROK following an invasion by Pyongyang to seize control over the peninsula.

With that biographical background, we get to the meat and potatoes of the essay.  If the goal of North Korea is to reunify the Korean peninsula under communist rule, that would require the United States to remove its extended nuclear deterrent from the ROK and remove its military forces from the country and the region. Not surprisingly, that is exactly what Doug Bandow of the CATO Institute from the far right and David Vine, author of Base Nation, and from the far left, argue we should do.

According to Tom Reed, the former deputy national security adviser to President Reagan and Secretary of the Air Force under President Ford, in his book "The Nuclear Express", the Chinese in 1980 made a conscious decision to arm its allies with nuclear weapons technology. The Khan "Nukes ‘R Us" network in Pakistan grew out of this Chinese assistance to Pakistan in building its first nuclear weapons. Subsequently, Khan and the Pakistani government helped provide nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya, Iraq, and North Korea.

According to unclassified intelligence reports to Congress, there are five key Chinese banks and a specially created bank holding company that funds the North Korean missile and nuclear technology programs. Chinese companies profit handsomely in this work. As former intelligence officer Bruce Klingner told a Mitchell Institute seminar earlier this spring, the North Korean rockets we recovered showed detailed markings of both Chinese and Russian origins. 

What is China up to?

China sees a North Korean nuclear and missile threat posture toward the ROK and the United States as helping to split our alliance. In their view that would hasten the day when the ROK dissolves the alliance and makes an accommodation with both North Korea and China, rather than risk the possible outbreak of military hostilities.

Now it is also true that some military elements in China rue the day they helped create the Korean Frankenstein now crashing around North Korea building and exploding nuclear warheads and recklessly launching ballistic missiles. These same elements see the possibility that in response to the North Korean threats, Japan and the ROK may decide to build their own nuclear arsenal, a development China would find unacceptable.

Thus, it is the American administration understands this narrative, as other administrations did not, or if they did, they didn't like the implications. This administration understands that while China does have critical leverage over the North, it was not ready to use it. China wanted its nuclear cake (a North Korean nuke program they could use for politically coercive leverage) while eating its nuclear cake simultaneously, (relying upon the United States and its extended nuclear umbrella to hold tight the nuclear reins and prevent Japan and the ROK from going nuclear). 

Pushing China hard on sanctions is the next step and going after banks and industrial elements in China that are critical to North Korea's missile and nuclear capability. China may call our bluff and dare the ROK and Japan to go nuclear, rather than China leaning hard on North Korea and finally reading the riot act to the proverbial crazy uncle in the attic (but in this case the crazy uncle is a fox).

This will set up a test of wills within the PRC and the Chinese politburo. They will assess whether the American administration is serious, as well as our allies in Japan and ROK and decide what to do. Is their strategy of the 100-year marathon to continue to world hegemony? Or do they step back from the brink and put on hold the idea of driving the United States from the Pacific?

Looked upon in this light, to date the Chinese actions, or lack of actions, make sense. And the administration nuanced strategy of a combination of diplomacy, economic sanctions and threatened military force in response, makes sense as well. Now we will see who does what and whether the Chinese strategy of the 100-year marathon remains on schedule or the protection of the West called for in Warsaw lights our future.

Peter R. Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis and a guest lecturer at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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