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Lose Face, Face Sanctions: China's Lesson to North Korea


by Austin Bay
August 2, 2006

Don't ever cost the Chinese face -- do so and you'll be slapped with UN economic sanctions.

Lost in last month's tsunami of war news was the UN Security Council's decision to sanction North Korea for its ballistic missile tantrum.

Despite years of pressure from the U.S. and Japan, China had been reluctant to chastise North Korea, but Beijing was clearly surprised by North Korea's July 5th missile volley. Saving face is important in every human group -- "face" is particularly important in North Asia, in social relationships and in diplomacy. The North Korean tantrum cost China a bit of public embarrassment.

Chinese embarrassment cost North Korea the humiliation of international economic sanctions.

Economic sanctions are crude weapons, but North Korea is in a particularly crude financial and political situation. The U.S. contends North Korea launders stolen money through corrupt banks in Macao (the Chinese port formerly run by Portugal). Chinese cooperation also enhances U.S. efforts to curb North Korea's counterfeiting operations. That's right -- counterfeiting. Minting fake U.S. currency has been one of North Korea's few profit centers.

The U.S. and Japan have proposed other economic penalties. Both countries have already used anti-organized crime and anti-terror techniques to thwart currency remittances to Pyongyang from North Koreans living abroad.

North Korea's Kim Jong-Il operates an extortion racket. The North Korean totalitarian police state is a totalitarian crime state. The criminal enterprises (counterfeiting, smuggling drugs) keep its Communist elites in caviar.

While North Korea's clique trumpets the development of nuclear weapons, over 2 million of its citizens suffer from malnutrition. North Korea can build bombs and test missiles, but only international aid prevents mass starvation. Given the dictator's ample paunch, it's a good bet Kim and his elites eat well.

The number of North Koreans fleeing to north China from their country-wide gulag has increased sharply. A Chinese army now sits on the Korean border, tasked with stopping the refugees fleeing Kim. The refugee issue is one reason, among many, to doubt China's long-term commitment to supporting Kim's depraved junta.

In the past, North Korean bouts of international madness occasionally served Beijing's strategic ends. Kim's Stalinist regime rattles the U.S. and scares Japan. However, China and Russia now have extensive trade relations with Japan and South Korea. The South Korean economic powerhouse invests in China.

Japanese fear is producing changes in Japanese military doctrine. No one in Asia wants a militarily resurgent Japan, particularly China.

But North Korea's ballistic missile barrage has ignited The Rising Sun.

The Japanese government is now openly cooperating with the U.S. on anti-ballistic missile defense, including the deployment of U.S.-made Patriot Pac-3 anti-missile missiles to Okinawa.

Defense is one thing -- Japan's "Self-Defense Forces" are designed to defend Japan. Offensive strike capability is something else entirely.

Last month, the London Times wrote that "Kim's adventures" had radicalized Japanese opinion. "'The vast majority of Japanese agree that we need to be able to carry out first strikes,' said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University." According to Shimada, Japan must "have an offensive missile capability."

Japan could have offensive missiles in a couple of months. For that matter, Japan could produce a nuclear weapon within a few weeks.

Chinese and South Korean diplomats argue that North Korea's regime may be crazy but it isn't suicidal. Firing a missile at Japan -- whether it has a nuke or not -- would be a suicidal act, and the diplomats argue that won't happen. But Beijing and Seoul cannot guarantee North Korea won't try to sell a nuclear device to terrorists, which is one of Washington's central concerns.

Swap a nuke for a cool billion? Pyongyang's crooked track record suggests Kim would do the deal.

Beijing has no interest in a nuclear-armed, U.S.-allied, economically powerful and reunified Korea -- a little bulldog of a peninsula on China's border. Propping up North Korea prevents reunification. Dropping the North Korean props could be traded to Korean reunification if the peninsula were politically neutral and nuclear-free.

Consider that a succinct look at "future diplomacy" -- if North Asia succeeds in avoiding a Korean nuclear war in the dicey interim.

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