Time to Stop Dancing the North Korean Tango

By Sinnreich, Richard Hart | Army, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Time to Stop Dancing the North Korean Tango


Sinnreich, Richard Hart, Army


Few international relationships in U.S. history have been more persistently ambivalent than our relationship with China. Even before communist Mao Tse-tung's decisive victory over Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists in 1949, it was unlike any other in the spectrum of U.S. foreign relations.

Motivated almost equally by missionary zeal, economic appetite and liberal paternalism, we began by exploiting China's political implosion in the late 19th century, grudgingly tolerated her nationalist and nativist revolution following World War I, endured four years of military frustration and corruption at her government's hands during World War II - including the misappropriation of millions of dollars in Lend-Lease assistance - then watched in dismay as communism triumphed despite our efforts.

China's subsequent intervention in the Korean War in October 1950 - an intervention that its leaders had clearly signaled - buried U.S.-Chinese relations in concrete for more than 20 years until finally exhumed in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, with a powerful assist from a Soviet Union that, during the intervening years, had become a visibly greater threat to China than the United States.

Today, however, more than three decades later and more than half a century after the armistice that suspended active hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, China's continued indulgence of its volatile southern neighbor continues to bedevil its relations, not only with the United States but also with other Pacific states.

Once, over lunch years ago, I asked a senior Chinese officer why his government continued to put up with the shenanigans of their North Korean protégés. He smiled, then replied, "Old ties of comradeship." Almost ruefully, he reminded those sitting around the table that personal relations forged in war tend to endure long after the events that originally prompted them have been forgotten.

That explanation made some sense back then, but no longer. Neither China's nor North Korea's leaders retain any but the most distant ties to their alliance of the early 1950s, and the nations they lead since have marched in opposite directions.

Despite its nominal communism, China has virtually abandoned all but its authoritarianism in favor of an almost frenetic market capitalism. In contrast, North Korea has become an economie basket case, starving its own people to feed a military machine that it can justify only by periodically reheating the threat of war, as it did a few months ago by torpedoing a South Korean warship without warning in international waters.

Today, in more ways than one, North Korea is a millstone around China's neck. Its economic paralysis threatens Southern China with everything from smugglers to refugees. …

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