The Singapore summit was theatrical, unprecedented, and largely symbolic. Theatrical because the world witnessed a former reality TV star greet the world’s most reclusive leader. Unprecedented because it was the first time a sitting American president has meet a member from the Kim dynasty. And symbolic because the agreement was vaguer than those of the past.
It’s hard to imagine that if Hilary Clinton had produced a similar agreement that Trump wouldn’t have called it “fake nuclearization.”
What the historic meeting did produce was a de-escalation in tensions, which is a good thing. But no real breakthrough on the regimes nuclear weapons should be expected and it is not because of the threat posed by American hegemony. No, the writing is on the wall in Asia and while the United States will always be the worlds most powerful country, America’s days as the principal military power of Asia are numbered. It is, rather, China which worries North Korea.
The most overstated alliance is not NATO or the U.S.-Japan security alliance, but the Chinese-North Korean alliance. It is a cliché to argue that the road towards North Korean nuclearization is through Beijing. China does appear to have some leverage over North Korea. Almost 90 percent of North Korean trade is with China, and it is China who has used its veto to shield North Korea from international sanctions.
As well, North Korea is the only country China is technically obligated to defend in the event it is attacked.
Yet, this alliance is not a result of a shared ideology or some cultural affinity but from a Chinese desire to ensure regime stability at home. Like most of the middle powers of Asia, China’s rise is viewed skeptically by North Korea. While it is true that China may prefer a nuclear North Korea to a collapsed regime, its long-term aim for the peninsula is not clear. The uncertainty of China’s long term plans is exacerbated by the complicated history of the two countries. It was China, after all, that normalized relations with the United States at the expense of North Korea’s main benefactor, the USSR. It was also China that recognized South Korea as an independent state, despite North Korean claims that it was part of its own territory. And it is China that uses its trade leverage and UN veto in an attempt to manipulate DPRK politics.
It is not unreasonable to assume that Kim trusts China less than he does America. After all, Kim’s first set of policies were to purge his regime of Chinese influence. This included executing his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, recalling North Korean business elites living in China, and assassinating his half brother who, until his death, was protected by Beijing.
An unintended consequence of hegemony (whether global or regional) is the incentive for rouge states to pursue nuclear weapons. China has designs to replace America as the hegemonic power of the region and part of their grand strategy includes geopolitics. Considering that the current leadership of China has made historic claims of ownership to the peninsula, it should be no surprise that North Korea bristles when China attempts to control its public policy. From an American perspective, this makes negotiations for the dismantling of the DPRK nuclear weapons complicated. Unless America can control Chinese foreign policy, it is not likely that DPRK will denuclearize regardless of Chinese policy.
Understanding North Korea’s nuclear program as a deterrent of China presents the United States with an ideal opportunity to quietly withdrawal from the issue of DPRK nuclear program. The United States spends a great deal of its resources in an attempt to denuclearize the peninsula, yet with little return. America does all of this despite China being the biggest beneficiary of a dismantled nuclear program. Furthermore, American policy is arguably counterproductive. It is American power that creates the Chinese-North Korean alliance. Once that power recedes, a new front will open between China and North Korea which is arguably in America interests to see happen. If American grand strategy is to ensure no regional hegemon emerges in Asia, the United States should quietly welcome a nuclear Korea as it would mostly serve as an obstacle to Chinese hegemon.
The paramount question of international relations today is how to handle China’s rise. The middle powers of Asia have all made it clear that they are wary of how a future China will behave, North Korea included. North Korea’s strategy for handling a future China will be to direct their nuclear weapons at Beijing, not Washington DC. The United States should therefore slowly disengage from the region and allow Pyongyang to be Beijing’s headache.