No "Fight Tonight": The Korean Peninsula, the US, and China

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Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 2018.

For China, President Trump’s suspension of “war games” alongside South Korea — coupled with talk of reducing troop numbers on the Korean peninsula — offers the possibility of restoring its historical dominance. These military exercises, loathed by Pyongyang, have for years prepared the joint US-South Korea command for land, sea, and air combat, to “fight tonight” — the motto of US forces stationed in Korea.

North Korea’s blueprint for eradicating the American imperialist threat has remained unchanged for decades, through three generations of the Kims. Step one, the US and South Korea end military exercises. Step two, America winds down and eventually removes all GIs and military hardware from the Korean peninsula.

For China, which has long called for the end of US–South Korean drills, the winding down of America’s military capability on its doorstep is not only welcome, it also represents a final act rebuilding traditional relations with Korea, a reversion to historical type.

From the 1300s, China exercised suzerainty over Korea, in a relationship that saw the latter frequently attack outposts of Chinese dynasties in present-day Manchuria but rarely get very far, as successive Korean kingdoms reverted to their place “under heaven” — China’s description of the world it ordered. “If you violate the way of heaven again, then you should not regret the punishment that will fall on you,” wrote the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, admonishing Korea’s King Taejo in 1393 for such an incursion.

Maps of the late Joseon Kingdom of Korea in the 18th century showed China oversized in the very center with only Korea, Japan and Yuku — present-day Okinawa — otherwise marked, all as small islands within the orbit of the Middle Kingdom. During this period, Korea drew prestige from its ability in defending its huge northern neighbour.

By the 1900s, its “century of humiliation,” China and its peripheral ports were picked off by a succession of colonial powers as the long dynasties period waned and eventually folded. Japan briefly took Korea for itself, and then following its own defeat at the end of World War II, gave up the peninsula to the victorious armies of America and the USSR. Still at war with itself, China was much weaker than the two emerging superpowers of the Cold War era.

Although much has been written of Soviet dominance over North Korea under Kim Il-sung, Stalin’s military forces lasted just three years in the northern half of the peninsula to China’s eight during and directly after the Korean War. If the Americans and Soviets created North Korea, it was China that saved this new communist state, entering the Korean War at the last moment in October of 1950 after Stalin had already told a retreating Kim to flee into exile in Manchuria. By the 1960s, Kim and his cult of personality had already started to turn against Khrushchev’s meddling as he insisted on collective leadership in the Communist world. By then, very few countries in the world were so dominated by a single figure.

Turbulent times ensued, not least during the Cultural Revolution, when China would hang Mao portraits facing across the border to North Korea and blare anti-Kim propaganda from loudspeakers. But over time isolationist North Korea was slowly sucked back into China’s orbit.

By 1992, when China established formal relations with South Korea, the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc was no more and North Korea and its aid-dependent economy had little choice but to embrace China. An ensuing famine two years later forced the country and its people into a deeper relationship with the regional power.

Isolated against the fortified DMZ in the south, North Korea shares a northern border with China that stretches 880 miles compared to just over 20 miles with Russia. As China’s economy has soared, this long frontier has become among the widest in terms of the difference in per capita wealth. Only that between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, mountainous and blighted by civil war, and North Korea’s own border with Russia suffer a greater wealth differential anywhere in the world. Like the collision of high and low pressure systems, this huge discrepancy has created an economic hurricane across North Korea’s frontier only somewhat tempered by the high security and shoot-on-site policy of its border guards. In 2008, China already accounted for 40 percent of all North Korean trade. A decade later, after sanctions that have squeezed most other countries out of doing business with the world’s foremost pariah, North Korea now relies on China for 90 percent of its trade. Bikes, cars, soap, whisky, wooden doors, chairs, televisions, handbags, solar panels, bricks and mortar — all or most of all of these goods come from or through China. By contrast, Lesotho — a tiny mountainous country with the world’s third-highest HIV infection rate — remains less trade dependent and despite being geographically subsumed by its patron South Africa.

Chinese domination of trade extends over the whole peninsula, and began earlier. China took over as South Korea’s biggest trade partner in 2004, just 12 years after the two countries formalized relations. South Korea, with its diverse economy and lack of sanctions, is much less dependent on China than the North. Still, China accounts for US$167 billion in South Korean trade, double the figure of the next biggest trade partner, the US — and the gap is getting wider. If North and South relax their border and trade starts to flow across the DMZ, as already discussed, then South Korean trade with China will only further increase.

All of this depends on peace, the end of UN sanctions against North Korea, and the fulfillment of recent promises between Kim and Trump — targets for every country concerned, not least China. In pursuing their long-term goal of ridding the Korean peninsula of US troops, the Kims have aimed to develop nuclear weapons to deter American aggression. In Pyongyang, Trump’s decision to engage shows this plan is working.

The endgame therefore remains unchanged and indeed even clearer than ever: if America wants to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear stockpile, the simplest path would be to withdraw from the Korean peninsula. For China, such a move could not come too soon. For Koreans, the effects will be complex. Chinese dominance coupled with an American retreat improves the chances of peace and therefore unification, but then China has become used to the benefits of a divided Korea, namely dominance over the North and the buffer it provides from the US and, to a lesser extent, Japan. With time, and the withdrawal of the added complication of America, Beijing’s position in this regard will surely soften. For South Koreans accustomed to US protection, the preeminence of China is likely to prove daunting in the short-term. But ultimately Chinese power, as shown historically, will prove less intrusive than that of the US. The American military garrison in Seoul reminds us of that.

Alan Scott is the pseudonym of a British journalist based in East Asia