Does an Attack on Iran mean an Attack on South Korea?
There is perhaps a key message in the current Korean crisis -- namely, a threat of a U.S. strike on Iran would perhaps be matched by threat of a North Korean attack on South Korea. Could this be the People's Republic of China's (PRC) indirect way of going mano-a-mano with the USA?
As in the past, the PRC is allied with North Korea. Little is known about the relationship between their governments and even less about the military ties between their armies. Thus, there is the logical possibility that North Korea might really be a PRC proxy. What about the hypothesis that North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles might somehow really be controlled by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA)? Certainly, Beijing has the practical ability to force the North Koreans (leader, party, government and army) to comply with PRC wishes via promise or performance of any number of countermeasures, were that even necessary.
Why should we believe that the PRC is really unhappy with North Korea's behavior? Recently Lignet reported that additional PLA units had moved to the border with North Korea. If so, those reinforcements are perhaps more likely to be a warning to the USA than to North Korea. The same is true of some recent ambiguous statements by the PRC's new president Xi Jin Ping, which some Western media rushed to interpret as a rebuke to North Korea. However, within the PRC some of those same statements were seen as aimed at the USA.
Though the PRC has become starkly pragmatic and the USA markedly ideological, the two countries are nonetheless still playing "the great game" of the world powers. In this context, cutting the USA down to size is one of the fundamental goals of both PRC and Russian foreign policy.
Without reference to ideology, North Korea remains an important strategic asset for the PRC. For example, North Korea is a buffer between the PRC and South Korea, which is a U.S. ally.
It is also possible that the PRC sees North Korea's nuclear-weapons and missile programs as a way to challenge the U.S. presence in Northeast Asia. The point is to demonstrate to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan that the USA is no longer able to guarantee their security. And those (like the USA) who now once again turn to Beijing in the hope of moderating North Korea's bizarre words and conduct are actually bending to a strategy that seeks to have China's neighbors recognize that they are now in a PRC sphere of influence.
"Use a borrowed knife to strike your enemy" is a well-known Chinese adage. There are perhaps some PRC fingerprints on key aspects of North Korea's nuclear-weapons and missile programs. If so, theorists of nuclear proliferation would find it difficult to understand why the PRC would have helped advance the development of nuclear weapons and missile systems in an adjacent state, i.e. North Korea.
Though the PRC was always in a position to curb North Korea, why did Beijing further (or at the very least acquiesce with respect to) North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles? The answer might be in details of the relationship between the North Korean military and the PLA. For sure, this is a secret topic about which almost nothing is known. However, it is commonly said that the PLA has close ties with its North Korean counterpart and that the PLA has projects and activities in North Korea.
Moreover, there are probably North Korean, PRC -- and also Russian -- fingerprints on some aspects of Iran's nuclear weapons and missile programs. And Iran and North Korea are likely collaborating with an eye to "playing" the USA. The goal is to challenge the USA with simultaneous crises in both the Far and Middle East. This result is welcome to both the PRC and Russia as part of their continuing effort to counter the USA's global influence. And this is precisely why both the PRC and Russia have to some extent furthered Iran's race to nuclear weapons and missile systems.
So far, the USA is playing its hand without much intelligence or skill. And in this regard, we should perhaps turn to Henry Kissinger's March 2013 comments at the Council on Foreign Relations. There, he implied that governments around the world neither trust President Obama nor know where he is heading internationally. The U.S. leader wasted much of his first term pointing a finger at Israel and "reaching out to the Muslim World." Instead, American interests would probably have been better served had he early on used force to stop Iran's race to nuclear weapons. Now, new developments hint at linkage between the Far and Middle East. This may signal that the cost of taking on Iran may perhaps now have become too high.
Allen Z. Hertz was senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. He formerly worked in Canada's Foreign Affairs Department and earlier taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong. He studied European history and languages at McGill University (B. A.) and then East European and Ottoman history at Columbia University (M. A., Ph.D.). He also has international law degrees from Cambridge University (LL.B.) and the University of Toronto (LL.M.).