UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear, China

North Korea’s Next Test?

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned reporters in New York that his country may place a live nuclear warhead on one of its missiles, launch it, and then detonate the bomb in the open air.

It would not be the first time a country conducted such a test. The Soviet Union tried and failed in 1956. The United States was successful in 1962. But perhaps the most relevant historical precedent is the Chinese test in 1966.

 

An excerpt from 东方巨响 : a documentary film on the history of China’s nuclear weapons program produced by China’s People’s Liberation Army and released in 1999.

 

China’s Choice

At the time China was nearly as isolated as North Korea is today. The Soviet Union was no longer an ally but an adversary, massing military forces along China’s northern border. The United States kept the People’s Republic out of the United Nations and encircled its eastern coast with military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Despite relentless Chinese propaganda proclaiming invincible revolutionary strength, China’s leaders felt extraordinarily insecure in the face of mounting Soviet and US pressure.

China set off its first nuclear explosion in October of 1964 and proved it could deliver a militarily useful nuclear weapon with a bomber less than a year later. But the Chinese leadership still felt a need to demonstrate it could launch a nuclear-armed missile and detonate it near a target hundreds of kilometers away. Only then could Chinese leaders feel confident they introduced the possibility of nuclear retaliation into the minds of US and Soviet officials considering a first strike. Chinese Marshall Nie Rongzhen, who led China’s nuclear weapons program and directed the test, summed up Chinese thinking in his memoir.

Mating an atomic bomb to a missile and conducting a real swords and spears test required facing very great risks. If the missile exploded at the launch site, if it fell in the middle of its flight or if it strayed out of the target area there would be unthinkable consequences. But I was deeply confident in our scientists, in our engineers and in our comrades working at the bases, who all possessed a spirit of high responsibility. Our research and design work was thorough and the medium-range missile we developed was reliable, with a highly successful launch rate. But more than that, in order to show our missiles were genuinely a weapon of great power that could be used in war we had to conduct this test of them together.

North Korea’s Choice

It is impossible to know if the individuals leading North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have the same degree of confidence in their technology and their personnel.  But it is not hard to believe they feel the same urgent need to prove North Korea has a useable nuclear weapon, especially in the face of continuing US doubts. China’s expansive land mass allowed its leaders to conduct their test in a way that only put their own people at risk. But tiny North Korea must send its nuclear-armed missile out into the Pacific Ocean on a trajectory that would fly over Japan. If a failed North Korean test were to impact Japan it could precipitate a large-scale war in North-East Asia that could kill a million people on the first day.

Hopefully, avoiding that horrible outcome is the top priority of the North Koreans contemplating the test and the Americans considering responses. Kim and his cadres might feel less inclined to risk the test if it they were convinced President Trump and his national security team were already genuinely worried about the possibility of North Korean nuclear retaliation. Unfortunately, that’s an assurance Washington is unlikely to give Pyongyang. It still hasn’t given it to Beijing. US unwillingness to take the option of a first strike off the table, combined with demonstrations of resolve like the provocative flight of B1 bombers out of Guam and F15 fighters out of Okinawa, could tip North Korean scales in favor of conducting the test.

Critical Differences

Chairman Mao didn’t worship nuclear weapons. He famously disparaged the atomic bomb as a paper tiger. Mao believed nuclear weapons were too destructive to use in a war. Their only value was in vitiating nuclear threats against China with the fear of potential retaliation. Does Kim Jong-un think about nuclear weapons the same way? We don’t know, because we don’t talk to the North Koreans enough to understand their point of view or trust anything they say.

China went on to develop a very limited nuclear force calibrated to maintain a credible possibility of nuclear retaliation. The United States government not only never panicked, it found a way to develop a viable relationship with the nuclear-armed communist giant. By the time China first tested an ICBM capable of reaching the United States, reforms within China made it appear even less threatening. Profound US discomfort with China’s nuclear force remains, but the two sides have managed to not only avoid a war but to develop robust and mutually beneficial ties.

North Korea may seem too small, its culture too parochial to make dialog and cooperation as appealing to the United States as Nixon’s opening to China in 1972—just six years after China’s daring nuclear-armed missile test. It is hard for the nation of 24 million with a GDP the size of Jackson, Mississippi’s to command the same respect as China’s 1.3 billion. Perhaps the North Korean leadership sees nuclear weapons as a great equalizer: a viable means to force the United States to sign a peace treaty, and, as one North Korean student recently told a US reporter, “leave us alone.

The US Choice

Ri told the United Nations that the “ultimate goal” of his country’s nuclear weapons program was to “establish a balance of power with the United States.” It is worth exploring what that means, and bilateral dialog is the only way to do that.

There is no indication North Korea will agree to denuclearize unless the United States agrees to join them. The US must decide whether the risks of continuing to rely solely on pressuring North Korea, at the cost of Pyongyang’s ever more provocative demonstrations of its capability to harm the United States, are more likely to yield an acceptable outcome than the risks of engaging the North Koreans in a discussion of what might be required to make their nuclear weapons program less threatening to the United States and its allies. The most immediate choice is whether continuing to introduce ambiguity about pre-emptive US military action is worth provoking the test flight of a nuclear-armed missile over Japan.

In the Chinese case the United States came to tolerate its nuclear weapons program in the context of broader shifts in the international security environment that encouraged a bilateral rapprochement, even though the fundamental security problem – Chinese reunification and the status of the Republic of China on Taiwan – remained unresolved. The initial impetus for reestablishing relations was a shared concern about a mutual adversary, the Soviet Union. But the relationship managed to outlive the Soviet Union’s collapse. Tensions within the US-China security relationship have slowly intensified in the post-Cold War period and the United States is still unwilling to accept its vulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation. Yet both sides, for the time being, do not seem overly concerned about the risk of a nuclear confrontation.

Despite their volatility, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un could find the basis for a US-North Korean rapprochement in their shared concern about an accidental nuclear war, or the outbreak of a conventional confrontation that would cause great harm to both nations. Talking about stopping a risky test of a nuclear-armed missile that would fly over Japan is a good place to start.

China is urging both sides to come to the table.

 

US Talks to China about North Korea, But Does Not Listen

The United States and China both want North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The North Korean leadership continues to defy them both. The United States says it is willing to risk a war to stop them. China is not.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signs the Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism with his Chinese counterpart Gen. Fang Fenghui following a roundtable discussion in Beijing, Aug. 15, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

China’s top priority is preserving the peace, however uneasy that peace might be. A credible North Korean capability to launch a nuclear-armed ICBM may make US officials psychologically uncomfortable. But the Chinese leadership does not feel that increased US anxiety is a sufficient justification for starting a war that could conceivably kill hundreds of thousands of people and collapse Asia’s economy, even if no nuclear weapons were used.

China has made its priorities clear to both the United States and North Korea. An August 10 editorial published in China’s Global Times warned both sides against striking first. The editorial was not an official statement of Chinese government policy but it almost certainly was reviewed and approved at the highest level. It suggested to the leadership in Pyongyang that, “If North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral”. It also suggested to Washington that, “If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”

China has also made it clear that it will not agree to sanctions that strangle North Korea’s economy. China supports economic penalties that punish North Korea for defying the United Nations and continuing its testing programs. And China is willing to work with the United States and the international community to deny North Korea access to critical technologies. But on August 5th, in an official statement made at the time of the vote on the latest round of UN sanctions, China emphasized, as it has many times in the past, that China “did not intend to negatively impact such non-military goods as food and humanitarian aid.”

US Refusal to Listen

Though China’s position on North Korea is clear and consistent, US policy is based on the assumption that China’s position will change. On August 13th, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson penned an editorial in which they repeated the claim, believed by most US policy makers and analysts,  that China has “decisive diplomatic and economic leverage over North Korea.” The implication is that China can force the North Korean leadership to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The joint editorial reiterated a US policy announced earlier this year by Secretary Tillerson, who said the Trump administration was engaged in an unprecedented effort to “lean hard into China” in order to pressure its leaders to change their policy.

Presumably this means trying to compel China to take steps to strangle the North Korean economy. The United States reportedly attempted to include a crude oil embargo in the latest round of UN sanctions. But China refused, as it has in the past, to agree to sanctions that would have the kind of suffocating economic impact the United States believes would force North Korea to surrender its nuclear ambitions. In their editorial Tillerson and Mattis told their Chinese counterparts they expect China to “do more” than enforce the current round of UN sanctions. They want China to cut off North Korea’s “economic lifelines.”

US policy experts imagine there are several factors that might prompt the Chinese leadership to bend to US demands. Henry Kissinger raised the specter of nuclear proliferation in Asia, including a nuclear-armed Japan. Others believe the Chinese are worried about increased US economic and diplomatic pressure, especially President Trump’s statements linking Chinese cooperation on North Korea to punitive US trade policies. US observers of Chinese domestic politics speculated that Chinese President Xi Jinping may need to alter China’s longstanding policies on North Korea to mollify domestic critics as he makes his case for a second five-year term at the upcoming Party Congress in November.

China Remains Calm

Despite these imagined pressures, there is no indication that President Xi is about change China’s position on North Korea. Throughout the month of July there was very little Chinese coverage or commentary on the North Korean missile tests. Official statements repeated past calls for calm, mutual restraint and a resumption of negotiations. It wasn’t until President Trump’s threat to unleash “fire and fury” on August 8th, followed by North Korea’s threat to fire missiles towards Guam on August 9th, that the Chinese leadership had the Global Times publish the August 10th editorial containing more emphatic and explicit language.

Not long afterwards, North Korea walked back its threat to fire missiles at Guam. The United States then made a series of high level statements intended to diffuse tensions.  In their editorial, Tillerson and Mattis questioned whether China was willing or able to “show the world how a great power should act.” History may well record that in this particular moment of high tension, China’s president acted with greater patience, skill and prudence than the president of the United States.

On August 14th, as tensions began to subside, an editorial in the overseas edition of China’s People’s Daily chastised both the United States and North Korea for “playing a game of chicken on the Korean peninsula.” That’s not the language of a country that lacks confidence in its current position or is overly concerned about upsetting the United States.