Much of what is written about the North Korean crisis seems to me little more than fantasy. Let us examine the mythologies.
1) China is a responsible partner in checking North Korea and, of course, does not want war.
It may well be true that China’s communist apparat wishes to avoid a war, or even the escalating tensions of a war-like environment that in theory could depress profits and endanger profitable Chinese commerce. But there is very little support in history for the rationalistic notion that mutually profitable relationships thwart suicidal wars.
Diplomatic grandees claimed in 1913 that Europe’s interconnected trade, rails, and tourism were such that no German nationalist would be so foolish as to endanger a mutually profitable system by invading France and Belgium. The Somme and Verdun followed. By early 1941, Hitler was warned by some of his planners that Germany’s new de facto ally, the Soviet Union, was sending to Berlin (often on credit and with free transportation thrown in) almost every resource that the Third Reich requested. No matter; Hitler invaded in June 1941, Stalingrad followed, and Nazi Germany never was able to steal as much Russian wealth through invasion and occupation as it had in the past simply bought on credit.
Of course, China is amused by North Korea’s latest theatrics. Kim Jung-un’s brinkmanship causes endless apprehension for China’s existential enemy, Japan. It reminds South Korea that the peninsula will never be united by a pro-Western capitalist south. And it reveals the United States as a sort of impotent and neurotic busybody that eventually offers concessions and pays bribes in direct proportion to its serial announcements that it has quit doing just that.
And what if all the insane North Korean threats are credible?
We dismiss that nightmare, but in autumn 1950 Mao made it repeatedly clear that as U.S. forces neared the Yalu River, he would intervene with massive ground troops. What a silly threat, Gen. Douglas MacArthur assured us as he promised Americans that their boys would be home for Christmas dinner. After all, China was not nuclear; it had no independent air force; it was still in revolutionary turmoil; its North Korean pawn was all but annihilated after Inchon; an unpredictable America had recently dropped two atomic bombs; and China’s poorly supplied conscripts would be slaughtered by overwhelming American air and artillery power.
Yet intervene Mao did, supplied with superb Russian weaponry, thousands of Russian advisors (and combatants), and protected under the Russian nuclear umbrella. Stalin, in the manner of China’s present pique with Kim Jung-un, “disapproved” of Mao’s risk-taking, but ultimately found war less a downside than the upside of pain inflicted on its rival, the U.S. And as far as North Korea’s thinking, it may well be preemptive in nature — in the manner Sparta “feared” Athens and believed that things were only to get more one-sided and disadvantageous in the future.
If sanctions continue and the Danegeld is truly cut off, then North Korea might figure that now is as good a time as any to start something that might end without its own annihilation — and result in a situation no worse than its present slow strangulation. Kim Jung-un’s much publicized youth and inexperience, the belated assertiveness of untried South Korean president Park Geun-hye, and the perception of an underwhelming U.S. president, secretary of State, and secretary of Defense all are force-multipliers that increase the likelihood of conflict.