The US Seeks to Cut China Off From a Future Partnership With an Economically Open North Korea

Recent events have made it perfectly clear that Kim Jong-un is not the only one who sees immense potential in a DPRK economy that stands on the precipice of ultra-modernisation. Kim’s recent statements on his desire to have a fully automated industrial economy in the near future helps elucidate the reality that when a north-east Asian economy decides to modernise, it is only a matter of time before it becomes a so-called ‘tiger economy’. This was true of Hong Kong beginning in the mid 20th century (when it was still a UK colony), it was true of China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1978, it was certainly true of South Korea beginning in its 1970s economic revolution and was equally true of the the economy on the island of Taiwan which while legally part of China has de-facto developed in a parallel fashion.

Basic geography dictates that the final north east Asian tiger to awaken will be the DPRK  and as the final north east Asian nation to have a modern economic revolution, the country is well placed to learn valuable  lessons regarding what works and what does not work from its neighbours and consequently begin its economic revolution from a position of wisdom and strength. Even in spite of sanctions, Kim Jong-un has overseen an era of economic growth and mild but in the context of the DPRK, still significant reforms indicating that Kim has already embraced some elements of market socialism with Juche characteristics. Likewise, the country’s educated, highly disciplined and efficient work force simply needs to redirect its energies towards more modern industries in order to become among the most prized workforces in the world.

This reality has been acknowledged by China’s President Xi Jinping who would like an economically harmonised Korean peninsula integrated into the One Belt–One Road initiative, while this has also been acknowledged by Russian President Vladimir Putin who seeks to create a Russia-Korea Economic and Energy Corridor where Russian gas can be piped into energy hungry South Korea via an increasingly open DPRK. Of course, Donald Trump has seen this potential as well and even went so far as to show Kim Jong-un (and later the media) a video about what the DPRK could gain from economic openness with the United States in a post-nuclear age.

But while neighbouring Russia and China who are on better terms than at any time in their respective modern histories would be happy to both share a role in helping the DPRK to modernise and open its economy, the United States has other ideas.

Geopolitical expert Andrew Kroybko wrote in the aftermath of the Kim-Trump Singapore Summit that far from being openly betrayed by the US like Iraq and more recently Libya and Iran, the US actually has a strategic interest in helping the DPRK to become ‘great again’ in a very real economic sense. In this sense, while the US continues to discuss the de-nuclearisation issue, Trump recently let slip that the real issue at hand is not a matter of caution and distrust of Kim Jong-un and his government, rather it is a matter of trying to restrict China’s influence on a DPRK that is destined for peace and openness.

Trump took to Twitter to announce that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the DPRK would be delayed. While Trump expressed concerns that de-nuclearisation was not progressing as rapidly as it ought to, he laid the blame for this on China’s leadership (who he did not name) while he conveyed fraternal greetings to Kim Jong-un whom he said he looks forward to meeting again soon.

In three surprisingly straightforward Tweets, the US President revealed that while he remains on excellent person terms with the man he formerly derided as “rocket man” and while Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang will happen sooner or later in any case, it is China that the US holds responsible for the DPRK’s alleged slowness in terms of de-nuclearisation.

While China has been a long time proponent of a win-win de-nuclerisation of the DPRK and a de-militarisation of South Korea, two things that Trump himself advocated for during and in the immediate aftermath of the historic Singapore summit, it is absurd to accuse China of seeking to delay a new reality from blossoming in Korea which could see One Belt–One Road develop a new terminus in an economically harmonised peninsula bordering China.

And this is where the element of Trump’s honesty comes in. While Trump is promulgating fiction regarding China being a negative influence on the Korean peace progress (there likely would have never been a peace process at all without China pushing all sides in that positive direction), Trump is telling the truth regarding American policy in the region.

As Chines and US officials continue their long discussions to try and end the current Washington authored trade war, Trump just put the entire DPRK economy on the table as a bargaining chip. In other words, if China allows the US to take a leading role in shaping the post-nuclear DPRK economy while China takes a back seat, the US will drop a great deal of  its tariffs against China…at least for now. Alternatively, if China continues fostering a renaissance in Beijing-Pyongyang relations, not only will more tariffs be on their way but so too will be more ridiculous accusations of China breaking UN resolutions regarding its trade with the DPRK.

Like with so much else in the trade war, it will be a matter of ‘who blinks first’. China on the one hand could adopt its tactic of the 1980s where Deng Xiaoping advised the country’s representatives to hide their strength and keep their heads low so as not to attract too much international attention.  Here, China could allow the US to pour investment into the DPRK with the inherent realisation that in the future, an economically harmonious Korea will be reliant on One Belt–One Road in spite of whatever the US says in 2018. After all, as South Korea continues to expand trade and friendly relations with China, it would seem obvious that the young Kim Jong-un, the grandson of Kim Il-sung whose troops fought beside those of Mao would have no less of a desire than Seoul to conduct high level trading relations with Beijing. If all future economic belts and raods will lead to Beijing anyway, perhaps China could allow the US to claim a short term unilateral victory knowing that such a reality would only be temporary in any case as all of America’s closet historic Asian allies including Japan are now looking to increase long term trade with China.

On the other hand, the Xi era has seen China become more confident about its role in the world. This has been made necessary as One Belt–One Road’s multi-continental nature means that China not only needs to explain the benefits of its win-win model to the world but must aggressively counter the western funded infowar aimed at sowing international mistrust of China throughout south Asia, south east Asia, all of Africa and most of Latin America. In this sense China may indeed rebuff the US by stating that it is not only legal but reasonable for the DPRK to want developmental partnerships with all three superpowers and that China as a neighbour and long time partner of the DPRK has no reason to bow to any outrageous demands, not least because the US may find a new “excuse” for more anti-China tariffs in the near future in spite of whatever is agreed regarding the DPRK.

In reality, China may use a combination of assertiveness and a so-called “crouching tiger” technique. All that China truly needs in respect of the DPRK is a formal lifting of UN Security Council sanctions or otherwise a united global front against them that would make US enforcement of those sanctions difficult to the point of impossible in the long term. The world is not there yet, but the world is heading to such a point seemingly sooner rather than later as the US will need to follow the global consensus away from sanctions if it wants to turn the DPRK into a new American showcase in east Asia as South Korea once was to a large extend. Furthermore, if Washington makes Pyongyang wait forever for the investment that the US promised through inference in the form of the video shown to Kim and his colleagues, the DPRK might simply phone up Beijing and Moscow and say “one of the superpowers has just withdrawn from the bidding war for development of our country”.

China has already slammed Trump’s remarks as “irresponsible” and untrue, thus offering a public indication that China will not allowed baseless allegations regarding the present day relations between Beijing and Pyongyang to go unanswered.

Taken as a whole, the world is now publicly aware of what was previously only discussed in private circles – namely that the US embrace of the DPRK is aimed at forcing Pyongyang to pivot away from China. In this sense the US strategy never had to do with a more altruistic endeavour to end the Korean War – this was simply a collateral bonus.

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