The biggest loser from North Korea’s nuke test? China. (updated)

When I was in high school, my favorite TV show was “Miami Vice.” Until it jumped the shark in Season Three, I’d count the minutes until each episode began. One of its best episodes was called “Golden Triangle,” in which the show developed the main characters’ boss, Lieutenant Castillo, played by Edward James Olmos in his breakout role. Olmos played Castillo deep and dark. To me, at that age, Castillo personified cool.

In this episode, Castillo revealed his past as a DEA agent in Thailand, where he’d gone native, learned to speak Thai, met and lost his life’s great love (played by the delectable Joan Chen), and then barely survived a deadly ambush at the hands of his nemesis, a Nationalist Chinese general turned Golden Triangle drug lord named Lao Li.

Lao Li’s character was played by the late, great Keye Luke, an actor who deserved vastly more memorable roles than were available to Asian-Americans for most of his long life. Luke played this role brilliantly, with an impeccably icy sagacity. (Watch the whole episode below if you doubt me). In his career, Luke was probably most famous for playing Master Po in “Kung Fu,” but I’d have remembered him for the talent he showed in this one “Miami Vice” cameo if he’d never done anything else.

This being a blog about North Korea, you may be wondering whether I will be making a topical point. We’re coming to that; trust me. In this episode, Castillo learns that his old nemesis, General Lao Li, has decided to move his smuggling operation to Miami by posing as a respected retiring businessman, putting down strong roots in the community, and gaining the favor and patronage of the political establishment. (Yes, Joan Chen is there, too.) To do this, he gives strict orders that his subordinates behave like paragons of legality, maintain low profiles, and avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement — and especially of Lieutenant Castillo — at all costs.

Lao Li soon learns that his grandsons have defied him and are driving around in a Lamborghini. Most unforgivably, they have been selling heroin. Castillo is watching, and his men arrest the grandsons. This is a risk, and a defiance of his authority, that Lao Li cannot accept. In terms of its plot, acting, and production values, this episode could have been a movie, but the scene that illustrates my topical point starts at 41 minutes.

[If only one of the grandsons had been fat. Really fat.]

That Lao Li’s character happens to be Chinese is as incidental to the analogy as the fact that Castillo’s character doesn’t. Xi Jinping may not inhabit a higher moral plane than the fictional Lao Li, but he almost certainly inhabits a lower intellectual one. Xi may have a predator’s instinct for weakness, but he’s also a cumbrous, boorish nationalist who has managed to turn most of his democratic Asian neighbors against him. His legacy may yet be an Asian analogue to NATO that contains several newly-minted nuclear powers in an arms race with his ally (and him), along with a lot more port calls by the U.S. Navy.

Xi may not see this, but anyone can see that he has been humiliated by the perception that he cannot control his lawless dependent. That perception may be nothing more than a disguise for a more duplicitous agenda, but the perception itself is costly. Xi has greater schemes in mind, but his (metaphorical) grandson threatens to upset his plans by causing his neighbors to mobilize their defenses. His paternal benevolence should end here. It won’t. And that means Kim Jong-un will continue to be costly for Xi Jinping.

History will probably record that North Korea’s fourth nuclear test did more damage to the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy than it did to the the geology under Punggye-ri. In doing so, it also obliterated China’s credibility here. One of the more devastating criticisms of the administration’s policy came from The Washington Post‘s David Nakamura, who effectively accused the administration of outsourcing its policy to China. No wonder the State Department is feeling burned by China:  

In a striking public rebuke of China, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Beijing on Thursday that its effort to rein in North Korea had been a failure and that something had to change in its handling of the isolated country it has supported for the past six decades.

“China had a particular approach that it wanted to make, and we agreed and respected to give them space to be able to implement that,” Mr. Kerry said a day after North Korea’s latest nuclear test, after a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. “Today in my conversation with the Chinese I made it clear: That has not worked, and we cannot continue business as usual.” [N.Y. Times, David Sanger and Choe Sang-hun]

If China’s quiet duplicity surprised the Secretary, it was because no one was giving him read-outs of the excellent reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring those sanctions. Those reports added to a considerable body of evidence that China was willfully violating the sanctions for years. In the short term, this is a big setback for the Obama Administration, but in the longer term, we can hope that a tougher, more engaged, and more realistic North Korea policy will be to the administration’s advantage as it winds down its affairs and transitions to the next one.

For China, the consequences may be more adverse and enduring. It stands to lose influence regionally because of North Korea’s actions. Its adversaries have taken steps to resolve the differences that divided them, and are now effectively allied against it. South Koreans even speak openly of acquiring their own nuclear weapons. As well I would, too, if I were South Korean, Japanese, or Taiwanese.

It also stands to lose credibility globally. As William Newcomb, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts, told the AP, “China uses the sanctions committee’s consensus rule ‘to renege on what it agreed to do in the Security Council as well as to block proposed designations.’” Now, the U.S. and China are fighting about both the substance and enforcement of U.N. sanctions. More voices in the U.S. are calling for secondary sanctions that hit Chinese targets. Some South Koreans are also blaming China:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went ahead with the fourth nuclear test because it will not cause China to abandon the North, said Kim Hwan-suk, a senior analyst at the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy.

“North Korea used brinkmanship because it knows that China won’t abandon it, given its strategic value,” Kim said. “North Korea does not expect China to fully support sanctions against the North by the U.N. Security Council.” [Yonhap]

The strongest words came from South Korea’s Foreign Minister:

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Sunday called on China to prove its “firm” opposition to the North’s claimed hydrogen bomb test after the North’s largest ally denied responsibility in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

“The Chinese government must clearly follow through with its promise made to the international community when it votes for the United Nations Security Council resolution,” Yun said on “Sunday Diagnosis,” a KBS current affairs program, on Sunday morning.

“That’s important to stabilizing the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the international community. It would prove that China hasn’t made empty promises.” [Yonhap]

China, for its part, is pushing back and blaming the U.S. for Kim Jong-un’s decision to test a nuke, thereby revealing much about its fundamental hostility to U.S. interests and utter disregard for the welfare of North Koreans:

In a commentary, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said, “The U.S.’s combative approach has in effect deepened Pyongyang’s sense of insecurity and prompted the country to go further in challenging non-proliferation restrictions.”

“The Western media and some politicians have piled blame on China for failing to halt the DPRK’s nuclear program,” the Xinhua commentary said, using an acronym for North Korea’s official name.

“But any hasty conclusion to identify China as the crux of the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula is as absurd as it is irresponsible,” it said.

Another state-run newspaper published by China’s ruling Communist Party also blamed what it calls a “hostile policy” by South Korea, the United States and Japan towards North Korea for the North’s fourth nuclear test.

In an editorial, the state-run Global Times newspaper appeared to defend North Korea’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying there will be “no hope” for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions unless South Korea, the U.S. and Japan change their policy toward the North.

“There is no hope to put an end to the North Korean nuclear conundrum if the U.S., South Korea and Japan do not change their policies toward Pyongyang,” the editorial reads. “Solely depending on Beijing’s pressure to force the North to give up its nuclear plan is an illusion.”

Lu Chao, a research fellow of Korean studies at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times newspaper on Saturday that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons because of a “hostile policy” by the U.S. against the North. [Yonhap]

This sort of rhetoric will not play well in Washington, and will not advance China’s interests. Instead, it will inflame opinions on Capitol Hill and among American voters. In an election year, it will set off a contest among candidates to promise the most anti-Chinese policies. A few of those promises might even be kept. So why does China say such silly things? For the same reason Donald Trump says silly things — because of his emotions, and to exploit the emotions of other mediocre minds.

Historically, China has been an empire that either absorbed or dominated its neighbors. States that remained independent were required to send ambassadors to the Forbidden City to kowtow and give tribute. Chinese political culture is a hierarchical and status-conscious one in which you’re either above or below. Those above condescend and exploit. Those below fawn and obey. With this realization, I suddenly understood the appeal of Maoism. In comparison, Korean society seems positively egalitarian. I certainly know who I’d rather drink with, or have on my side in a street fight, but then, I’m an assimilated wasicu

Because of status-based and institutional arrogance, and because China’s leaders aren’t held accountable by a critical press or free elections, they overestimate their own competence and don’t weed out incompetent or corrupt officials. That’s true everywhere, but it’s especially true in dictatorships. Job security is more closely related to getting along with others, and showing the right deference to superiors. That drives China to make “safe” decisions by continuing with what has worked before, or seemed to. If what worked before stops working, the new plan may come too late, and may be the work of not-very-competent people. See, e.g., the recent performance of the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

The leaders of China are rational, but they’re also operating with limited information, because of both groupthink and censorship. So when Chinese elites say that sanctions won’t work or human rights problems in North Korea aren’t really that bad, they probably believe that, mostly. That’s both because they don’t know, and also because they don’t care that much. To Chinese elites, Koreans are a “down” people, and that goes double for North Koreans. They may be extremely adept at weighing of costs against benefits, but groupthink and institutional resistance are high obstacles to a careful reconsidation of the bubble that’s building beyond China’s northeastern border.

In the case of North Korea, we may yet persuade China to shift course. There might yet be a chance for a face-saving soft landing that avoids regional war and protracted chaos, and protects China’s basic security interests, ours, and those of our allies. For now, that still seems unlikely. That’s unfortunate, because the interests of China, the United States, and a united Korea could be reconciled by skillful diplomacy. I’m not sure if Beijing really agrees, but a nuclear North Korea is bad for China — very bad. To get to that realization, however, China will have to feel enough of a cost to shift its incentives. That means that U.S.-China relations may have to get worse before they get better.

~ ~ ~

UPDATE: Now, the South Korean semi-official news agency, Yonhap, reports that Chinese are complaining that their government needs to take a harder line.

In one opinion poll of some 42,500 people by the state-run Global Times, 81 percent say the North’s nuclear test poses a threat to China’s security.

In another poll of 4,900 people by the same paper, 82 percent responded that they support new sanctions by the U.N. Security Council against North Korea.

Some Internet users posted comments about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the newspaper’s website, likening him to an “extremely crazy guy.”

Other users say China must cut its aid of oil and food to North Korea.

China is North Korea’s top trading partner and supplies almost all of the isolated ally’s energy needs, but many analysts believe that China’s Communist Party leadership won’t exert enough leverage on North Korea because a sudden collapse of the North’s regime could threaten China’s own security interests. [Yonhap]

That’s the first thing resembling an opinion poll I’ve seen measuring Chinese sentiments about North Korea policy. The 82 percent support for new U.N. sanctions is stunning, and at striking variance with elite opinion in China. Yonhap also reports “growing public resentment” of North Korea, and that “some social media users criticizing their government for not taking a tougher response to the North’s test.” Imagine how they’ll feel if sanctions start to have collateral effects on China’s fragile economy. What this means is that Xi Jinping’s North Korea policy is probably causing harm to his domestic support, in addition to the harm it’s doing to his international credibility.

3 Comments

  1. I am in awe of the depth and breadth of this article!! You mentioned Miami Vice, Kung Fu, Donald Trump and made them all relevant to Korea!!! Too bad the Obama Admin will fumble this one…

  2. ” . . . I’m not sure if Beijing really agrees, but a nuclear North Korea is bad for China — very bad . . .”
    ______________

    Mr. Stanton, this piece sure re-convinced me, but history proves that our friends in Zhongnanhai will most likely disagree. See, you did not round it off in a way that makes it personal to them. I have ranted on this issue here at One Free Korea countless times in the past, and I’ll take this chance to round it again:

    King Little Fatso III plans to intimidate / threaten / terrorize / incinerate Beijing with His nuclear toys as soon as those toys enter service.

    Xi Xinping can direct any questions on this topic to me through One Free Korea . . .

  3. Very well said. With any luck, this nuke test will be a turning point in how China deals (or doesn’t deal) with His Porcine Majesty.

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