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North Korea is China’s Geopolitical Miscalculation

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By Thomas Armbruster

September 9th was a national holiday in North Korea, marking the founding anniversary of the ruling communist party, founded by Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader Kim Jong-un. To mark this day in North Korean style, the country announced carrying out their fifth nuclear test.

Under the young leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has become increasingly belligerent, as expressed by regular display of military might, nuclear tests, bombs, and firing of ballistic missiles facing key neighboring countries.

Therefore, another set of nuclear tests by North Korea was quite predictable, it was just a matter of opportune timing.

There were serious talks about newer sanctions on North Korea during the recently concluded ASEAN summit held in China. The latest nuclear test is likely to be meticulously timed keeping both the ASEAN summit and the communist party’s founding anniversary in the backdrop.

The latest explosion is expected to be within the range of 10 to 30 kilotons, which triggered a 5.3 magnitude earthquake in South Korea. This was likely to be the most powerful display of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to date.

North Korea’s previous nuclear test done earlier in 2016 had the power of about six kilotons.  The country started testing nuclear bombs in 2006, followed by subsequent tests in 2009 and 2013.

Under the young leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has become increasingly belligerent, as expressed by regular display of military might, nuclear tests, bombs, and firing of ballistic missiles facing key neighboring countries.

North Korea is Not China’s Geopolitical Bright Spot

North Korea’s latest nuclear test shows that despite its business acumen, China still struggles with geopolitical calculus.  There is no way having a nuclear, unstable North Korea on China’s border makes sense for China.  It may provide a slight military bulwark against the U.S., but it is a net moral, economic, and political liability.

Once South Korea democratized, it became one of Asia’s tigers.  It is an economic powerhouse and has been militarily responsible and patient over the years with its erratic northern neighbor.  South Korea and North Korea provide the starkest contrast on the planet between the benefits of an engaged, democratic society and a closed, autocratic regime.  South Korea has also blossomed in terms of the arts, international transportation, and culture.  It is a country that looks out into the world, rather than into itself.

If China allowed the Koreas to reunite, South Korea could bring North Korea along.  That economic powerhouse could be another huge market for Chinese goods.  Rather than expanding militarily into the South China Sea and other places it has no business, China could make inroads into Asian markets that will help diversify China’s business portfolio and no doubt strengthen its own business practices as it integrates with Korea’s modern business model that respects human rights and the environment along with the bottom line.

An accidental war or a war that suits North Korea’s interests could be triggered at any time.  Why have a ticking time bomb on your border when you can have a trading partner and a political model for future liberalization?

A united Korea would be a positive, prosperous and contributing member of the international community, and it would be a project worthy of international support.

In the Russian Far East I saw North Korean workers in the seafood industries and forests, making a living and sending their returns home to North Korea.  I also saw North Koreans defect and make their way to the U.S. and South Korea.  I was able to stand and look at North Korea from the Russian border, but not travel there.  That border area is home to the Amur leopard, an endangered creature with only a bit of habitat left.  Preserving such a majestic animal’s habitat is perhaps one of the only benefits of having this closed society, a relic of the Cold War, hanging on and causing trouble.

Perhaps when China does allow North Korea to change it will be our signal that China has found its Gorbachev, who allowed the Germany to reunite, and despite Putin put the world on a more secure footing.  A united Korea would be a positive, prosperous and contributing member of the international community, and it would be a project worthy of international support.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.

This article was originally posted at Geostrategists.com

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