The ‘Dawn of Justice’ in Northeast Asia: China, the US and the DPRK
31 Mar 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Karen Borter

While watching the new Batman v Superman movie, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the plot and current dynamics between the US, China and North Korea. No really, hear me out. The gist of the movie (without spoilers) is that while Batman and Superman wrestle for power between themselves, a third actor creates ‘Doomsday’ which will destroy the world unless the two superheroes put their differences aside and work together to defeat it. What happens in the end? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

True, the parallel’s not perfect. North Korea’s too weak to threaten an actual Doomsday, even if it lashes out with everything it has. But if you put the US and China into Batman and Superman’s spandex costumes—and consider North Korea the self-motivated third party threatening peace and stability—it helps explain the urgent need for cooperative action between Washington and Beijing.

Washington and Beijing aren’t actual adversaries, but the two countries are engaged in strategic competition and rivalry. In the meantime, Pyongyang has made clear its intention to become a nuclear-armed state with multiple tests of its own ‘Doomsday’-type device every few years (2006, 2009, 2013, 2016). But the most recent test suggests a nuclear program that’s becoming much more blatant and that will challenge the US and China’s ability to find common ground to address a common issue.

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on 6 January—the claimed detonation of a hydrogen bomb—and then launched a satellite on 8 February using ballistic missile technology. In response, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to impose particularly harsh sanctions on North Korea in early March. They introduce inspections of cargo originating from or destined to North Korea and prohibitions on aviation fuel and rare minerals.

While we’re reflexively inclined to think of China as North Korea’s patron and the US as South Korea’s ally, the two have proven themselves able to cooperate on the North Korean issue. Officials in the US recognised China’s willingness to cooperate on the implementation of the new sanctions and to consult on a range of related issues and the two countries have coordinated policy in the past: both were central to the September 2005 agreement of the Six Party Talks in which North Korea committed to abandon its nuclear weapons, return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and IAEA safeguards in exchange for economic exchanges and fuel.

But China often drags its feet on implementing sanctions because it has a fundamentally different view of how to deal with the North Korean issue. While both countries want to see the denuclearisation of the peninsula, when push comes to shove, Beijing doesn’t want to pressure the North Korean regime to the point of instability. It’d prefer to have North Korea as a vassal state on its border—even an increasingly disobedient one—than risk a unified Korea aligned to the US.

So what makes this latest round of provocations by the hermit kingdom any different to previous ones? Why should these two great powers find a way to put their differences aside and take-on the ‘Doomsday’ headfirst? Because the North Korean nuclear program has shown signs of growing rapidly—and that quickening brings to a head the longer-term question of where a nuclear-armed North Korea fits in Asia.

The week after the announcement of UNSC sanctions, North Korean news agencies announced that the country’s nuclear warheads had been ‘standardised to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturising them’. Successful miniaturisation of a nuclear device for mating with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is an important milestone for the country, as it more credibly raises the prospect of North Korean nuclear warheads reaching continental US. The release of images showing the apparent miniaturised nuclear device and ICBMs was clearly intended to bolster North Korea’s deterrent by demonstrating the full range of capabilities needed to strike the US.

The issues that arise from a credible ability to launch a nuclear strike on the US are consequential and would have flow-on effects for the strategic calculations of other Northeast Asian nations. South Korea, for example, currently sits under the US nuclear umbrella and has been deterred in the past from pursuing its own indigenous nuclear force by pressure and assurances from Washington. But talks on acquiring a nuclear capability are becoming less taboo in the ROK, especially as the question of whether or not the US would hold out its nuclear umbrella to protect Seoul instead of, say, California becomes more relevant. An editorial published in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo raised the need for frank consideration of a South Korean nuclear force and cited America’s failure to act in Ukraine and Syria as reasons to doubt the efficacy of US extended nuclear deterrence.

So although China usually drags its feet, the prospect of Seoul—or even Tokyo—reconsidering their reliance on US extended nuclear deterrence and the possible deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system in South Korea—which has recently been discussed here on The Strategist—would threaten to shift the strategic landscape of Northeast Asia to its disadvantage. The potential fallouts from an escalating North Korean nuclear program should, in theory, affect Beijing’s calculus about its neighbour and offer more reasons to act decisively.  

The recent developments on the northern side of the 38th parallel suggest we’re approaching a ‘now-or-never’ point. The two superheroes in this plot need to find a way to slow, cap and—eventually—reverse the North Korean nuclear program. If they don’t, this film isn’t going to have a happy ending.