Allen Z. Hertz was senior adviser in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. He formerly worked in Canada's Foreign Affairs Department and earlier taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong. He studied European history at McGill University (B. A.) and then East European and Ottoman history at Columbia University (M. A., Ph.D.). He also has international law degrees from Cambridge University (LL.B.) and the University of Toronto (LL.M.). An earlier version of this article was published on April 14, 2013, in American Thinker.
Matching threats to Iran and South Korea?There is perhaps a key message in the current Korean crisis -- namely, a threat of a USA strike on Iran might be matched by threat of a North Korean attack on South Korea. Could this be an indirect way for the People's Republic of China (PRC) to go mano-a-mano with the USA?
Connection between the Far and Mideast gains credence from a recent review of relevant Chinese-language literature by a USA scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. Lora Saalman observes: "Chinese discourse tends to link the Iranian nuclear question with North Korea."
North Korea, China's junkyard dog?As in the past, the PRC is allied with North Korea which has 24.5 million people and an economy smaller than that of Nepal, but larger than Cote d'Ivoire. According to the Financial Times:
China is estimated to account for nearly 90% of North Korea’s overall exports and imports, but North Korea accounts for less than 0.2% of China’s exports and imports.Relevant PRC players sometimes regard North Korea as analogous to a backward part of China. And, as is frequently the case, the master-servant nexus generates keen resentment. Thus, "Pyongyang detests Beijing’s high-handed treatment of the North akin to that of a poor Chinese province," as said by area expert Victor Cha in April 2011 testimony to a USA Congressional Commission.
Even in China, little is known about the PRC-North Korea relationship and even less about the military ties between their armies. Thus, there is the logical possibility that North Korea might really be, in some respects, a PRC proxy. If so, Beijing's sway need not be uniform across all subject matter. For instance, the PRC might choose to exercise decisive influence with respect to nuclear weapons, but not with regard to concentration camps.
The stark truth is that Beijing has the practical ability to force the North Koreans -- leader, party, government, army -- to comply with PRC wishes via promise or performance of any number of countermeasures, were that even necessary.
PRC government privy to PLA secrets?What about the hypothesis that North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles might somehow really be controlled by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA)? If so, only a handful of people in China and North Korea would need to know about it.
The PLA is not subordinate, but rather coordinate to the PRC Government. The PLA reports only to the Communist Party of China. Thus, much goes on inside the PLA that is unknown to the PRC Government, and certainly unknown to the PRC Foreign Affairs Ministry which dares not tangle with the PLA. China's policy with regard to North Korea is made by the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee together with the PLA, whose special interest in North Korea is acknowledged and respected.
PRC dissimulation?Why should we believe that the PLA is really unhappy with North Korea's behavior? Recently Lignet reported that additional PLA units had moved to the border with North Korea. If so, those reinforcements are perhaps more likely a warning to the USA than to North Korea. The same is true of some recent ambiguous statements by the PRC's new President Xi Jinping, which some Western media rushed to interpret as a rebuke to North Korea. However, within the PRC some of those same statements were seen as aimed at the USA.
Cutting USA down to size!Though the PRC has become starkly pragmatic and the USA more ideological, the two countries are willy nilly still playing "the great game" of the world powers. In this context, cutting the USA down to size is one of the fundamental goals of both PRC and Russian foreign policy.
Without reference to ideology, North Korea remains an important strategic asset for the PRC. For example, North Korea is a buffer between the PRC and South Korea, which is a USA ally.
It is also possible that the PRC sees North Korea's nuclear-weapons and missile programs as an effective way to persistently challenge the USA presence in Northeast Asia. The point is to demonstrate to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan that the USA is no longer able to guarantee their security.
And those like the USA, who now once again turn to Beijing in the hope of moderating North Korea's bizarre words and conduct are actually bending to a strategy that seeks to have China's neighbors recognize that they are now in a PRC sphere of influence.
PRC, a nuclear proliferator?North Korea is an adjacent state, where the PLA might perhaps one day wish to deploy without local authorization. Therefore, theorists of nuclear proliferation would find it difficult to understand why the PRC would have wanted to help North Korea advance nuclear weapons and long-range missiles there.
Pakistan is also contiguous to the PRC which probably gave Pakistan some nuclear-weapons technologies that were in turn passed on to North Korea. From a PRC strategic perspective, can the case of North Korea be distinguished from that of Pakistan?
The PRC-Pakistan border runs along some of the world's highest mountains. In 1896, eye-witness traveler Lord Curzon wrote about "the amazing military strength of the frontier." Thus, even without nuclear weapons, Pakistan was likely always able to stop an army coming from China.
By contrast, the PRC-North Korea border is militarily penetrable. Without nuclear weapons, North Korea is probably unable to prevent the PLA from deploying across the Yalu and Tumen Rivers. Thus, it is hard to imagine that the PLA would ever permit the North Korean army to get and keep nuclear-armed missiles capable of being aimed and fired, independently of the PLA.
This particular point is strengthened by considering the stern PRC warnings against any suggestion of Taiwan ever acquiring nuclear weapons. The PRC has explicitly identified that specific contingency as one of the several factors likely to prompt the PLA to use force to take the island.
PLA ties to North Korea a "black hole"Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the PRC has probably always been in a unique position to curb North Korea. If so, why did Beijing further (or, at the very least, acquiesce with respect to) North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles?
The answer might be in details of the intimate relationship between the North Korean military and the PLA. For sure, these are secrets about which almost nothing is known. However, it is commonly said that the PLA has close ties to its North Korean counterpart and that the PLA has projects and activities in North Korea.
"All warfare is based on deception" says Sunzi in The Art of War, an ancient text still revered by PLA strategists. In the same spirit is the well-known Chinese adage, "use a borrowed knife to strike your enemy." Thus, it is readily understandable why perhaps there are some PLA fingerprints on key aspects of North Korea's nuclear-weapons and missile programs.
Checkmate!North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the PRC seem to have left fingerprints on various aspects of Iran's nuclear-weapons and missile programs. And, Iran and North Korea now appear to be collaborating with an eye to "playing" the USA.
The likely goal is to challenge the USA with simultaneous crises in both the Far and Mideast. If so, this result would probably be welcome to both the PRC and Russia as part of their continuing effort to counter USA global influence. And this is precisely why both the PRC and Russia have probably to some extent furthered Iran's race to nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
USA "missed the boat" on Iran?So far, the USA is playing its hand without much intelligence or skill. And in this regard, we should turn to Henry Kissinger's March 2013 comments at the Council on Foreign Relations. There, Kissinger implied that governments around the world neither trust President Obama nor know where he is heading internationally.
From day one, the USA leader wasted much of his first term pointing a finger at Israel and peculiarly "reaching out to the Muslim World," notably including the Islamic Republic of Iran. Instead, USA interests might have been better served had the new President early on used some force to stop or slow Iran's drive toward nuclear weapons. Now, current developments hint at linkage between the Far and Mideast. This may signal that the cost of taking on Iran may perhaps have become too high.