My Comments to BBC TV about yesterday’s North Korean Nuclear Test

That would be the finest academic haircut in all of Asia… 😦


I spoke this morning on BBC’s Asia Business Report on the North Korean nuclear test. My quick take is:

Yes, it was a terrible idea, but no, it is not surprising. Nuclearization takes time and ‘practice,’ so these sorts of tests are expectable. This one was about half the yield (size) of the weapon dropped on Hiroshima, so they’re getting pretty good at this now. I’m continually astonished at how a near-third world state under heavy embargo nonetheless pulls this off. Wow. What are we missing?

Yes, there’ll probably by a UN resolution, but no, it won’t have any real bite. The reason is China. There’s a near consensus now in North Korea studies that China is the key here. China is the reason sanctions don’t work – because the Chinese don’t enforce them. And it is China that politically enables these childish North Korean stunts by not attaching any real costs of aid or diplomacy to them. That said, one of the reasons for all these NK hijinks is to keep the Chinese out of their business. We all assume the nukes are aimed at Seoul, Tokyo, and LA, but they’re also a nice deterrent to Chinese domination. The nukes signal that even though NK is now an economic satellite of China, it will never be a political one. NK will not become China’s East Germany.

The real question for the future then, is how the democracies among the Six Parties (SK, Japan, the US) can walk China back from support of NK. How do we get China to stop obsessing about retaining NK as a ‘buffer’ against the democracies? How do we get Beijing comfortable with Southern-led unification? When that happens, then Beijing will drift from the North, and the possibility of collapse becomes much more real. But that is probably one to two decades away. Yes, this drama will go on and on and on…

For my travelogue on my trip to North Korea, go here.

The video is simply my phone recording our home TV, so the quality is not so hot. Also, if you’re wondering my eyes are wandering all over the place, it’s because BBC does not provide the image back to the interviewee when you’re on Skype with them. So I am sitting there just looking at nothing – my desktop maybe – trying to find something to do with my eyes. Ah well…

7 thoughts on “My Comments to BBC TV about yesterday’s North Korean Nuclear Test

  1. Very much agree with what you say.

    I really think the only way to get China to stop regarding NK as a buffer is for the US and Japan to stop regarding (and using) SK as a buffer; and for that American troops need to be withdrawn. This isn’t an explicit anti-war or anti-America sentiment: American troops stationed on the peninsula justify NK-Chinese rhetoric, fears and (NK) belligerency whilst making Seoul look weak.

    If it’s going to be Southern led unification, the South needs to become the primary actor. Seoul needs to be able to independently engage Beijing. Essentially, SK and China need to form an alliance against NK but this could only possibly happen with America removed from the peninsula equation (which of course is anathema to Washington). It would also only occur following extensive reform or collapse of the CCP.

    But even without a Chinese alliance, SK would be in a much stronger position without foreign troops based on its territory and China would have less excuse to prop up Pyongyang in the proxy war between American and China.


    • That’s a very smart way to put it – when the US stops using SK as a buffer, China will stop doing the same with NK. Obviously you need to watch more Fox News to get your ideological orientation worked out. No one at MOFAT will appreciate that logic… But it does seem likely that China would play ball more if the US weren’t here. Hmm. The problem is that China shouldn’t really be allowed to dictate the alliance choices of a democracy. That’s a terrible precedent; Southeast Asia would flip out if that happened, and it’s not really fair to unified Korea that its sovereignty be so obviously abridged like that. One the other hand, probably only way to get China to abandon NK is a ‘finlandization’ deal – unification in exchange for neutrality. That deal is the most likely to alleviate the actor more punished by the current arrangement – the NK people. But South Koreans don’t want to give up the US security blanket, and when I mention finlandization at conferences and such, it just gets ignored. NO ONE wants to hear that, even if it is the best way to help the human rights catastrophe of the North


      • What about US troops leaving SK, SK going nuclear and then lead unification?
        The same would go for Japan. Kicking out US military, getting “the bomb” and China would give up its claims on the islands. I know they don’t sell nukes at the 7-Eleven so it’s not going to be that easy. But just as a theoretical scenario.

        The Japanese and the Koreans don’t like US forces on their soil, but they are afraid of a Chinese attack (which is still not likely at this time as Chinese military hardware is mostly polished Soviet garbage).
        China doesn’t like that this here

        is largely influenced/dominated by the US.

        So in the end Japan, SK and China want the same thing: the US to go back to their side of the pacific.
        Wouldn’t China reward Japan and SK for getting rid of US forces by agreeing to things like unification and territorial claims?

        Right now Japan and SK are bound by treaties with the US not to develop nukes or even long rage missiles, but hey! If US troops left I don’t think they would have problems to justify getting nukes in front of the global community, seeing how NK and China both have them and are not exactly their best buddies.
        Also this would prevent what you described. It wouldn’t look like China dictated anything as SK and Japan are then more powerful (nuclear and fully sovereign) as before.
        Plus this might make SK (later a unified Korea) and Japan work on their relations, form an alliance, build a friendship and end their childish fight.

        As mentioned above by Andrew, this is nothing Anti-American. If the US geopolitical ambitions collide with SK and Japan’s ambitions of national union, sovereignty and long term relationship with a steadily growing China then the US has to leave. Simple as that.

        But who am I kidding…


      • That last paragraph is correct, IMO. But SK and Japan are likely more worried about long-term Chinese revisionism than NK, so that’s why they want the treaties. They may protest them now and again, and elites and media editors may rail against them for easy political point-scoring. But I have no doubt that Korean and Japanese elites are very pro-alliance. So a US pull-out isn’t just about getting American to give up the ideological satisfactions of hegemony, it’s also about getting South Korea and Japan to take their security way more seriously than they do now.


  2. Good post. I’ve been reading Fischer & Ury’s “Getting to Yes,” a pretty standard (but unknown to me) text on negotiation. I have the sense that China and the U.S. are locked in what the book would call positional bargaining: risk-averse China does not want to have a failed state and U.N. troops on its borders (and this isn’t a totally unreasonable fear); the U.S. does not want to abandon South Korea to the possibility of China muscling into it or Taiwan or elsewhere, or to set a precedent of taking orders from China. Because these are fairly zero-sum positions it is difficult for either to back down from them. North Korea meanwhile plays one off the other. Your idea that NK wants bombs to send a message to China as well is very interesting.

    Perhaps a possible win-win deal would have the Americans and U.N. agree to not send troops north of the DMZ, in exchange for China to seal its borders and stop propping up NK? Do you think either states could build enough trust for this to happen, or does it give to much to either side? China might be more willing to allow South Koreans to occupy NK, and once the country was unified there would be no need for an American army presence, which would presumably shift to Japan / Phil / Guam / somewhere. Just an idea, and there might be complications to this. But I’m taken by the idea that there must be constructive ways to deal with China’s fears, and see little alternative, other than coaxing NK into a Burmese-style modernization.


    • Burmese-style, rather than China-style, modernization is a good parsing. I like that, because I think China has gone too far for the DPRK elite.

      As I said, swapping US troops for unity is really not a bad deal actually. Southern elites wouldn’t like it, because it’s cheaper to (partially) free-ride on American power, and the Southern population wouldn’t like it, because they like the status quo, even if they won’t say that. And honestly, there is a lot of selfishness in those positions. North Koreans are suffering terribly under the current order and alleviating their awful plight is, EASILY, the pressing moral element in this whole story. The real reason for unification is MORAL – ending the hideous human rights record of Pyongyang – not geopolitical or Korean nationalist.

      Seen from that view, if a withdrawal of USFK was requirement for a deal for an end to NK, it’s a no-brainer. But no one wants to say that, because for all their metaphysical angst about unification, South Koreans are veering toward disturbing selfishness about paying for it and caring for their Northern compatriots. This is the greatest failing of the current SK political order in my opinion. For as much as I find the Chosun Ilbo too hawkish and nationalistic, I strongly support their constant reminding of South Koreans of the moral obligation of unification.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s