BY VAHE BOGHOSIAN
On February 7 North Korea launched a long range rocket to much international criticism. The incident has already begun to cause ripples in global domestic policy, with Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Foreign secretary for the UK Labour party, utilizing the issue to argue in an intra-party debate for the existence of the UK nuclear deterrent: “Who fancies living in a world in which everyone else has given up their nuclear weapons but North Korea still has theirs?” South Korea, Japan and the US have understandably emerged as the strongest critics of North Korea’s sabre-rattling. Kaesong Industrial Park, a rare example of North and South Korea cooperation saw its 280 South Korean workers return home in protest of the launch and the continued DPRK nuclear threat. North Korea in response has expelled any remaining South Koreans from the industrial park. It is ultimately sociocultural tensions which reverberate in the military sphere.
Seoul and Washington continue to push for the implementation of a THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) Missile System in response to North Korea’s actions. China, compelled to follow a careful line, has expressed ‘regret’ over North Korea’s launch. China is also highly critical of the potential deployment of THAAD, stating that it will be a detriment to regional security. While this may be a bold claim to make for an apparatus that, like its Aegis and Patriot predecessors, is purely defensive in its nature, it represents China’s dilemma of trying to parry off North Korea-induced US security involvement while also attempting to maintain North Korean integrity in order to avoid a pro-US Korean Peninsula.
Korea has historically been part of the Chinese security complex, a fact US policymakers failed to recognize in the 1950-53 Korean War. In the 1592-98 Japanese Invasions of Korea, the Japanese Daimyo, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, launched an invasion of Korea following successful conquests in Japan. After a swift march north to Pyongyang, China intervened, pushing the Japanese forces back. The final peace treaty restored the status quo ante bellum. A similar pattern emerged in the 1950-53 Korean War where the US’s swift advance northward provoked a Chinese response eventually leading to the status quo.
On a national security level, North Korea’s existence as a buffer is vital to China. The instance where China was unable to maintain its Korean front garden resulted in the 1910 Japanese annexation of Korea. This became the staging point for Japanese advances into Manchuria and eventually led to the Japanese invasion of the Chinese heartland and the horrors of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, which continue to cause tensions between China and Japan today.
China along with Russia has opposed the deployment of THAAD in South Korea for years, but this recent event gives Seoul the impetus needed to reach an agreement that the US has been seeking. In the face of North Korean hostility, the deployment of THAAD will stabilize the region by enhancing South Korea’s security, thereby ratcheting down tensions in the peninsula. China, on the other hand, says that a deployment of THAAD will weaken its own security position and warns that if missile defense is implemented in the peninsula Sino-US tensions will increase.
Beijing must recognize that it cannot hope to restrain the US response while not being able to offer anything in return by means of restraining North Korea. The situation is rendered more complex by China’s apparent limited control over North Korea. For example, attempts to postpone the latest launch by veteran Chinese diplomat Wu Dawei were unsuccessful, and despite Chinese intervention, the launch was even rescheduled for Chinese New Year’s Eve. This lack of control puts China in a bind. It wants to further its own regional security aims, but cannot restrain North Korea in return for US-Asian security concessions.
On the US side, the launch will help push the ‘H.R. 757 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act 2016’ through Congress. The act will give the Pentagon the tools to take a firmer approach in Asia under the banner of responding to North Korean aggression. The Act facilitates a firmer response by legislating increased economic penalties and sanctions against nuclear proliferation and North Korean cybersecurity threats.
Despite its strong current hand, the US must remain focused on pushing defensive capabilities, such as THAAD, rather than offensive actions. Recognition of North Korea’s historic role in the Chinese security complex should instruct the Pentagon to proceed with caution. The DPRK may present obvious moment for the US to flex its rhetorical muscle and to project power in Asia, particularly in light of perceived weak US response elsewhere. Historical realities however suggest that caution and measured, targeted action is prudent.
Ultimately the ball is in China’s court. China cannot expect the US and its allies to heed its warnings on defensive security measures while offering little in return. China must ultimately choose between maintaining North Korean integrity, or accepting a stronger US military involvement in the region. THAAD is a message to China: as long as Beijing fails to restrain North Korea, its leverage in Asia and its ability to project is security imperatives will be reduced.
 Congress.gov, (2016). H.R.757 – 114th Congress (2015-2016): North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2016. [online] Available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/757 [Accessed 7 Feb. 2016].
About the Author
Vahe Boghosian is currently studying History at the University College London. Mr. Boghosian’s research interests focus on trans-border nationalism as well as East Asian security policies.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.