Small Wars

This Week at War: China’s North Korean Folly

By standing up for Kim Jong Il, Beijing only finds itself more isolated than ever.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

With North Korea, China aims at its foot and pulls the trigger

Admiral Michael Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited South Korea this week to reinforce the United States security alliance with Seoul. While meeting with South Korea’s top defense officials, Mullen criticized the Chinese government for its "tacit approval" of North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island and the torpedo attack earlier this year that sunk a South Korean warship. Mullen asserted that China has a "unique responsibility" to rein in the North before more aggression occurs.

China’s North Korea policy has been steady and consistent — and that is the bad news for China. Beijing’s ham-fisted approach to the North Korean issue is causing other countries in East Asia to rally around the United States in alarm over Chinese intentions, a result exactly contrary to China’s long term policy goals in the region. With no change in its policy toward North Korea, China should prepare for more diplomatic isolation and a stepped-up security response by the United States and its neighbors.

On Dec. 6, the Washington Post‘s John Pomfret described Beijing’s clumsy approach to South Korea in the wake of the North’s hour-long artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island. Four days after the attack, China sent State Councilor Dai Bingguo to Seoul, without an invitation or advanced notice. Upon landing, Dai demanded that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak abandon his schedule for the rest of the day in order to meet with him, which Lee refused to do. When the two met the following day, Dai told Lee to "calm down" and then delivered a history lecture on China-South Korean relations.

Dai’s diplomatic bungling was startling. After his departure, Lee and his new defense minister adopted a policy of military retaliation against the North. Lee then sent his foreign minister to a policy coordination meeting with his U.S. and Japanese counterparts. The United States proceeded with large military training exercises with South Korea and Japan. Soon after that, the U.S. and South Korean governments unveiled a completed free-trade agreement. China’s actions regarding North Korea have done wonders to bring together the United States and its Asian allies.

China’s self-inflicted diplomatic damage over North Korea now even extends to the Persian Gulf. According to a 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks, the U.S. government requested that China stop a shipment of ballistic missile parts from North Korea to Iran that passed through Beijing. It is likely that the shipment identified in this cable was just one of many from North Korea that have passed through China on their way to Iran. Such shipments are in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea’s weapons proliferation activities. According to a defector from Iran’s diplomatic service, North Korean missile and nuclear technicians have been regular visitors to Iran since at least 2002. The WikiLeaks cables have also revealed that Persian Gulf Arab leaders are increasingly apprehensive about Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. With the military assistance Iran receives from North Korea, it is easy for these leaders to trace the blame for their deteriorating security back to Beijing.

Why is the Chinese government unable to change a policy that is inflicting more and more damage on its own interests? Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently attended a think-tank event in Beijing which included numerous Chinese government officials. By his account, Chinese decision-making remains as opaque as ever. With respect to the North Korean issue, China’s authoritarian government displays less agility than its counterparts in the West. While the Chinese government struggles with its inertia, it should expect risk in the Korea peninsula to rise and China’s strategic position to fall.

Both sides in the WikiLeaks cyberwar are firing blanks

A cyberwar has broken out over WikiLeaks. The soldiers are in this war are two hodgepodge groups of computer hackers and activists attacking and defending WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Their weapon of choice thus far is the Distributed Denial of Services (DDoS) attack, which seeks to clog their target’s websites.  After several days of cyberwar, it is now clear that both sides are shooting blanks — the DDoS attacks have failed to shut down either WikiLeaks or its enemies. As with any insurgency, such a draw is a victory for the WikiLeaks insurgents. Both sides will now have to consider whether they should escalate to more powerful cyberweapons.

The first shots in the WikiLeaks cyberwar were fired last week, when several anonymous hackers organized DDoS attacks on WikiLeaks’ original website, effectively shutting it down. WikiLeaks then switched to a new URL in Switzerland. Around the same time, Amazon expelled WikiLeaks and its files from its web-hosting servers, claiming that the site had violated Amazon’s terms of service. Further attacks on WikiLeaks followed. WikiLeaks supporters responded by establishing over a 1,000 "mirror" sites or clones of the WikiLeaks site, a tactic that stymied DDoS attacks against WikiLeaks.

Earlier this week, a financial attack on WikiLeaks began. Under political pressure and concerned about the image of their brands, payment vendors PayPal, Mastercard, and Visa cut off payment services to WikiLeaks. A counterattack against Amazon and the three payment vendors ensued. According to the New York Times, up to 1,500 pro-WikiLeaks hackers and activists organized DDoS attacks on Amazon, PayPal, Mastercard, and Visa, briefly clogging their websites on Dec. 8. All were back to normal operation on Dec. 9.

Neither side in this little cyberwar has achieved its objectives. DDoS attacks have failed to stop either the release of more documents from WikiLeaks or the wheels of e-commerce at Amazon, PayPal, or the credit card companies. WikiLeaks is now cut off from a convenient method of funding, but we should expect it to rapidly arrange a new pathway for donations, which are now likely to arrive at a record pace.

A stalemate favors WikiLeaks, which will continue operating as it did before the cyberwar broke out. Those opposing WikiLeaks and who wish to continue the war may be pondering the use of more powerful weapons, such as smart malware directed at WikiLeaks and its supporters. Naturally, more powerful cyberweapons risk collateral damage to the wider Internet.

Many analysts have long anticipated that the Internet would become a much more hostile battlefield, expecting state and non-state forces to employ cyberweapons to gain advantages in a larger military campaign. So far these predictions have amounted to little, with the WikiLeaks cyberwar another anticlimax. But when an adversary can use the Internet to create substantial damage to his opponent, we should anticipate the arrival of much heavier firepower than we have seen thus far in the cyber domain. In that case, the casualties may not be limited to the combatants.

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