The Korean Peninsula has been a social and political dichotomy since the end of World War II. After the division of Korea into North and South, the communist versus democratic halves worked vigorously to establish their own versions of sovereignty. The North, with Soviet backing, decided the entire peninsula should be under communist rule and attacked the South, beginning a three-year war that engaged the United States, the new United Nations, the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China.
It was China’s military participation that turned the war from an allied victory to a perpetual stalemate. China’s involvement was not only the key to the outcome of the Korean War, it’s considered the most ominous consequence of any conflict today. But should it be?
When Douglas MacArthur sliced into the Communist phalanx at Inchon, Allied forces had been pushed to the very end of the peninsula. From that west coast foothold, U.S. forces were able to puncture supply lines and begin an assault that ultimately pushed northern forces well above the 38th parallel. But MacArthur made a serious strategic mistake. He misread China.
China supported the North Koreans, but did not deploy significant troops to do so. It was not until Allied forces reached the northern border with China – the Yalu River – that Chinese troops were engaged. And they engaged in massive numbers. What was lost on MacArthur is that China didn’t really care about Korea. China has always and only cared about China. When Chairman Mao felt his border – the Yalu – was threatened, only then did he react, and, overall, shoved back, not to take all of Korea, but to give China a buffer.
Today, China is too busy being a world economic power to worry about North Korea. Whatever “support” the Chinese may be providing Kim-whichever is purely cosmetic and will not – WILL NOT – include troops or any military equipment of significance. A war so close to her soil would disrupt the incredibly successful mercantile structure Beijing is building. This year, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. They will not jeopardize that.
How much of a REAL threat is North Korea anyway? An annoyance (with unfortunate, but limited human consequences) for sure, but not a catalyst for global or even regional crisis. Although Pyongyang’s troop strength is estimated at about a million men and women, the weapons and support capabilities are likely no more than rudimentary and certainly outdated. Should armed conflict erupt, the Republic of Korea is more than capable of defending the homeland without outside (i.e. United States) help.
North Korea’s purported nuclear capability is probably a greater threat to the North than to anyone else. While they have tested long-range missiles in the last several years, being able to host a nuclear device on one of them is beyond the North’s capability. If war were to come, the facilities housing the North’s nuclear activities will be Target One by South Korean air and ground launched missiles. The radioactive debris will create a zone even more barren than the current North Korean agricultural industry. And as long as the South doesn’t recreate MacArthur’s Yalu mistake, China won’t care.
Not only is North Korea no threat, it is, essentially, nothing at all. Take a Google Earth look at the capital city of Pyongyang. You’ll see building and thoroughfares, bridges and parks – all what you would expect of a large city. But you will see almost no automobiles. I don’t mean few in comparison, I mean none. There is the rare bus or trolley, but no sign of modern transportation of the scale one would expect of even a small town. No vehicles on the roads or in what one might presume to be parking lots adjacent to buildings. Now compare with a look at Seoul, South Korea – better yet, look at some of the smaller cities or even towns south of Seoul. Cars, trucks, buses both on the roads and parked outside factories, office buildings, schools and more. In other words, a modern, prosperous society. It is easy to say that China has much more in common with South Korea than it does with the North.
It then comes – as it always does – for China to be the Korea Whisperer. Beijing needs to be calm and assertive and establish itself as Pyongyang’s pack leader. And, no doubt, it will. For all the bluster, North Korea is trying to get attention by barking at the big dogs. The North is hoping for scraps as a gesture to keep it quiet, a tactic long used effectively. But as this particular mutt becomes more and more irrelevant, the less tolerance it can expect from China.