Following North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test over the weekend, South Korea on Monday staged a massive show of force involving aircraft and ballistic missiles.
South Korean government officials said while it appears as though North Korea was preparing for new missile tests as well in the coming days, Seoul would beef up the deployment of the U.S.-made THAAD anti-missile system and that the United States would also bolster its own forces in the region. Seoul planned to activate four additional THAAD systems, and the U.S. would be sending an additional aircraft carrier and bombers.
Russia and China also said they planned to respond as well. The Kremlin said it would boost its own forces near Russia’s border with North Korea, while China warned that additional deployments of THAAD assets would further inflame tensions in an already tense region.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, appeared to pressure South Korea, saying it risked “appeasement” of the North, while Defense Secretary James Mattis said any threat to the U.S. military or allies with which the United States has a security agreement would be met with a “massive military response.”
All that said, the nuclear test appeared timed to embarrass China, the North’s principal trade benefactor and ally, just as Beijing was set to host a conference of BRICs nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China, all seen to be at similar levels of economic development. The question is, why?
Why it’s on our radar: South Korea is making it as plain as it possibly can to Pyongyang that it is capable of defending itself should war break out. This is South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s way of telling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Trump that Seoul isn’t about to simply roll over in the face of aggression — no “appeasement” of the North, in other words. But then again, not striking the North first isn’t “appeasement,” per se.
As for the timing of the test, North Korea is obviously not concerned how it will affect its relationship with China. The younger Kim’s behavior is actually part of a historical pattern dating back to when his father, Kim Jong-il, ruled the country, having only visited China once in 1983 and three years after leader Deng Xiaoping’s death, having refused even to send his condolences at the time.
Though China accounts for 85 percent of North Korean imports, it gets little influence in return. Why?
Pyongyang understands that China and North Korea need each other, for varying reasons, but the most common denominator is keeping the United States off-balance. China trades with North Korea because it keeps the regime intact and acts as a buffer between U.S.-backed South Korea; China trades with the U.S. because American consumers fuel China’s economy, much in the way they did for Japan 30 years ago. Having learned how his father and grandfather played the former Soviet Union and China off each other, the latest leader of the Kim dynasty is now doing the same with the U.S. and China.
The one possible wild card: President Trump. Already the Trump administration is said to be preparing sanctions against any country that trades with North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, and of course, that includes China. Though China is responsible for vast majority of North Korean imports, Beijing is on the positive side of a massive trade deficit with the United States, which last year alone was more than $347 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A trade war with the U.S. would be devastating to both sides, but in terms of economic devastation, it would be worse for the Chinese.
Still, when all is said and done, it’s not likely that China will completely cut off North Korea’s economic lifeline anymore than it would deliberately sabotage its vast trade surplus with the U.S. China needs both. Kim Jong-un knows that.