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China Should Send 30,000 Troops Into North Korea

The only way to stand down from a nuclear confrontation is to reassure Kim Jong Un that the United States won’t — and can’t — invade.

North Korean soldiers during a parade in Pyongyang on Oct. 10. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean soldiers during a parade in Pyongyang on Oct. 10. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

In confronting North Korea’s adamant pursuit of nuclear weapons, so far nothing has been effective. Pledges to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula have failed. United Nations resolutions have failed. Increasingly severe sanctions have failed. And insults not only fail but also reinforce the hard-line stance of Kim Jong Un. In the latest provocation, Pyongyang resumed its slate of ballistic missile launches, firing a test salvo eastward on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

Are there any other options left worth pursuing? Cold War experience offers insight into a basic factor — a posture of strategic reassurance — that has persuaded other countries to forgo a nuclear-weapons option.

What is the central concern driving North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons? Pyongyang claims it is a well-founded fear that the United States and South Korea plan aggression to overthrow the Kim regime. To Americans, that fear seems absurd; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has explicitly denied any such intention. Yet it is the stated basis for the intensive, costly missile and nuclear programs that make Kim Jong Un so dangerous. It would be prudent to address it directly, demonstrating first that the threat of invasion against the North is unreal and, second, that absent the threat, continued defiance of international demands for nuclear and missile restraint has more sinister purposes.

Declarations by Washington and Seoul are insufficient, but more potent approaches are available. Those approaches rely on policies that helped induce several potential nuclear-weapons states to forego such arsenals. Three critical examples were Germany, Japan, and South Korea — all countries with far more substantial technological bases than North Korea. Their choice of self-restraint rested on many factors, none more critical than the security afforded by military alliance with the United States, bolstered by deployment on their territory of U.S. military forces. As historian Michael Howard explained years ago, reassurance of allies is scarcely less crucial than deterrence of adversaries. Durable strategic stability depends on both.

Understandably, attempts to stop North Korea’s reckless conduct have centered on coercive diplomacy and threats of military strikes. It may yet become necessary to employ some measure of force; continued overflights of Japan by North Korean missiles, for example, are powerful incentives to fire interceptors against them. There is nearly universal consensus among analysts, however, that overt military action carries grave risk of escalation to major war.

For years, a constant theme of debates and intermittent negotiations has been that Beijing holds the key to halting this disturbing trend. Although China is the Kim government’s main trading partner and strongest security supporter, it downplays its leverage to compel that government to alter course. The Chinese are clear, however, that a nuclearized Korean Peninsula is not in their interest. Gradually, reluctantly, Beijing has been drawn into the multilateral campaign to pressure Pyongyang economically and politically. Recent months have seen China joining strong U.N. Security Council resolutions and stern sanctions against North Korea, particularly in pledging curtailment of trade between the two neighbors. On present evidence, it remains doubtful that even the sharpest diplomatic and economic measures will dissuade Kim from his nuclear and missile ambitions.

Perhaps it is time to explore a different initiative: Could China reassure North Korea as the United States reassures South Korea? As Beijing has grown anxious over North Korea’s behavior, it has qualified its 1961 defense agreement with Pyongyang by emphasizing that it would assist against attack — but it would not support the Kim regime if it began a war. That is a constructive stance, but it may well be read by Pyongyang as a wobble that justifies the longstanding policy of self-reliance. The young Korean dictator may have little knowledge of China’s tremendous sacrifices in the war of 1950 to 1953 — almost 3 million soldiers engaged, more than 380,000 were wounded, and 180,000 were killed. Their casualties far exceeded the killed and wounded suffered by the United States; they approach the estimated losses by the North Koreans themselves.

Unwelcome as China’s intervention was to America and other nations defending South Korea, those numbers lend credibility to Beijing’s security guarantee. That guarantee would be most credible, however, if coupled with actual deployment of Chinese forces on North Korean territory. A symmetrical policy of reassurance could involve possibly 30,000 Chinese military personnel stationed there, a total comparable to U.S. forces south of the 38th parallel.

Yes, it seems counterintuitive to encourage China to strengthen military capabilities in the north. Some may find the notion antithetical to American interests. Shoring up a state with such vicious human rights abuses is a high price to pay for security. Yet the net effect should be to reduce the actual likelihood of war.

South Korea and the United States have always had to expect that in the event of war they would face both Chinese and North Korean forces. But the increased proximity of some Chinese soldiers would not alter the military balance. South Korea and the United States are already amply deterred from invading North Korea; a marginal Chinese military presence would not change that reality.

What it could do is shore up a policy of reassurance, removing any doubt that China would be engaged in the case of an attack against North Korea. That reassurance could relieve Pyongyang’s expressed fear of American aggression and thus remove the justification for its destabilizing nuclear- and missile-test programs. Coupled with offers to relax economic sanctions and political isolation, this initiative should offer maximum incentive for Kim Jong Un to suspend such tests.

Would China be prepared to move in this direction? To date, it has shown no inclination to occupy North Korea. After the massive intervention of the late 1950s, Chinese forces withdrew. Contrast that with the way in which the Soviets maintained control of their satellites in Eastern Europe for decades by deploying large military contingents in those countries. Yet today’s circumstances present totally different issues. To prevent collapse of nonproliferation restraints — and risk of another major war — Beijing might be prepared to consider stationing a minimal military force on the Korean Peninsula.

Even more uncertain: Would North Korea, with its professed dedication to self-reliance, be open to such an arrangement? In 1950, Kim Il Sung’s original intention was to unify Korea without Chinese assistance (although several of his leading officers were ethnic Koreans who had served in Mao’s liberation army). No matter that the Chinese saved his regime from the United Nations counterattack — Kim and his descendants have harbored mixed emotions regarding their gigantic neighbor. Acknowledging the need for Chinese support has mingled with resentment of dependence on and wariness of the government that came to their rescue. Convincing Pyongyang that active Chinese reassurance of this type should be welcomed will be difficult, if not impossible.

The task of persuading North Korea would fall to the Chinese, just as the United States would have to surmount predictable South Korean apprehension regarding the concept. North Korean leadership might perceive the offer of Chinese troops less as a stabilizing arrangement than as a prelude to overthrowing the Kim regime. Overcoming that suspicion would be a diplomatic challenge of historic proportions. Beijing may have little choice, however. Were other options effective in denuclearizing the Kim regime, China would surely resist this move; it holds promise only as a main element in complex multinational negotiations.

If Pyongyang rejected such reassurance, it would confirm doubts that its nuclear program has less to do with deterring an implausible invasion than with more hostile purposes. Speculation on those questions is neither necessary nor helpful. They are best answered by active, innovative diplomacy. Otherwise, present trends point toward either war or an unregulated nuclear weapons state in North Korea — a development that would only enhance the risk of a future more catastrophic conflict.

The trade-offs among interests, options, capabilities, and ambitions are intricate. Ironies abound: Reassurance of North Korea, distasteful as it may be, could prove indispensable to reassuring all interested parties that war is not inevitable.

Alton Frye is the presidential senior fellow emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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