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 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with Soviet backing, pursued the Communist satellite model while the southern Republic of Korea became a U.S. client democratic/capitalist country.
In the summer of 1950, North Korea invaded the South in an attempt to “unify” the Korean peoples under communist rule. The attack began a three-year war that engaged the United States and the new United Nations and, indirectly, the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China. Later, China became involved more directly.
It was China’s military participation that turned the war from an allied victory to a perpetual stalemate. When General Douglas MacArthur sliced into the Communist phalanx at Inchon, Allied forces had been pushed to the very southern 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 until Allied forces reached the northern border with China – the Yalu River. 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 was threatened, only then did he react, not to take all of Korea, but to give China a buffer between it and Western “puppet states.”
Now, in the third generation of a family dynasty, North Korea is making absurd threats to not just the southern neighbor, but to Japan and the United States. But in 2017, China is too involved with being a world economic power to care about the ghetto of Asia. A war so close to her soil would disrupt the incredibly successful mercantile, manufacturing, financial and shipping structure Beijing has built. As the world’s second largest economy, China will not jeopardize that for a ne’er-do-well like North Korea.
Look at North Korea’s social and economic profile. It is commercially obsolete with little to offer but rudimentary mineral and coal deposits. It’s nuclear development, both for commercial energy and weaponry, proceeds to the jeopardy of domestic manufacturing and agricultural progress. Constantly and consistently in debt to China and Russia – debts that usually have to be forgiven – North Korea’s nominal GDP is $25B and per capita GDP likely less than $1,000.
According to The Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) at MIT, North Korea exported $2.83B in 2015 and imported $3.47B, resulting in a negative trade balance of $640M.
Meanwhile, South Korea is the 5th largest exporter and 7th largest importer in the world and is host to global players such as Samsung, Hyundai, Kia, LG and Lotte. OEC reports South Korea’s 2015 GDP at $1.38T and its per capita GDP at $34.6k. Seoul’s exports that year were $537B and imports $422B, resulting in a positive trade balance of $115B. South Korea’s trade surplus alone is 18 times North Korea’s imports and exports combined.
Clearly, China has much more in common with South Korea than it does with its Communist compatriot.
The Korean Peninsula is bordered on the east by the Sea of Japan to the west by the Yellow Sea. The Yellow Sea is essential to shipping, manufacturing and fishing in the region and is believed to have oil reserves in the range of 20 billion tons.
The Yellow Sea/Bohai Sea corridor is the maritime access to Beijing and along the shores are three critical Chinese port cities; Tianjin, Dalian and Qingdao.
Tianjin is a world-class deep water artificial harbor, and China’s largest, with a throughput capacity that ranks fifth in the world. Only seventy miles from Beijing, it has become a critical hub for international shipping and logistics, manufacturing and research and development. Shipping to and from Tianjin relies on access through the Bohai Sea to the Yellow Sea via a 23 mile wide channel.
Dalian, east of Tianjin and just 225 miles northwest of Pyongyang, is an energy, manufacturing, engineering, chemical, international trade and shipping behemoth and the financial center of Northeast China. The sixth largest port in China, Dalian handles the country’s greatest tonnage of oil shipments and is the terminus of an oil pipeline from the Daqing oilfields. It is the 8th busiest port by cargo tonnage and the 12th busiest container port in the world.
To the southwest of Dalian and a mere 300 miles across the Yellow Sea from the South Korean coast, Qingdao is a critical seaport, naval base, and industrial center.
Another Korean war will have a major effect on Chinese trade, infrastructure, society, economy and politics. The Yellow Sea is only one-quarter the size of the Gulf of Mexico. That would be a very compact area during warfare and, should naval operations occur within, it will become even more condensed, causing major disruptions if not a complete halt to any maritime activity. Disrupting those shipping lanes, military operational zones and fishing sectors would be devastating.
Kim Jong-un and his belligerence represent only disadvantage to China. So much so that, politics and dogma aside, China will not allow North Korea to pull the region into a war that would be conducted in Beijing’s own driveway.