China’s Crucial Role in Resolving North Korea’s Yin and Yang Crisis

The Korean War was never over. Instead, an armistice was signed with each protagonist remaining on his guard. From America’s point of view, the North Korean question remains a thorn in their flank since the 1950’s. It is a reminder of the Cold War era. During the Korean War, the US troops had significant losses, which pushed General MacArthur to suggest the idea of launching an atomic bomb in North Korea, but his suggestion was dismissed. From the North Korean point of view, the country is still at war with the US and this idea is sustained by the propaganda of the regime in place. Thus, we have a crystallized conflict that has never been resolved; the embers are always on and may trigger a ‘fire’ at any time… This seems imminent with the latest North-Korean H-Bomb test. The question that arises then is what is the real meaning behind this test? Is it intended to scare the Western World (namely the American enemy) or to wring concessions from China to have more aid?

To answer this question, let’s examine the relations between China and North Korea. They are governed by Confucian relationship rules where China plays the role of Yin (visible aspect) and North Korea, that of Yang (invisible aspect). China condemned North Korea’s latest nuclear test, but is this condemnation made to please the rest of the world (the US and the EU to name only these two) or does it emanate from its interests? Will China join forces with Trump to bomb North Korea or not? Certainly not! Why? Because the Confucian morality is in play; ultimately, the harmony of the world is at stake.

Chinese Communist Party official Liu Yunshan with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. Kyodo via Reuters

Chinese Communist Party official Liu Yunshan with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. Kyodo via Reuters

On the one hand, China’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear test is intended to please everybody. This is the yin in action. It reinforces its respectability at the UN Security Council level. That said, if North Korea is bombed by the US, there will be a conflict on the Chinese border with all its consequences; something that China wants to avoid at all costs, especially since it is closer culturally and politically to North Korea than to the US. On the other hand, the yang in action is the various dealings that China and North Korea have (and will have in the future), and of which we know little, or only what these two countries want to let us know. The actual nature of the relations between the Middle and the Hermit Kingdom is the object of many observers’ assumptions since its amplitude and magnitude remain an enigma.

That said, the ‘autistic’ attitude of North Korea is not only an ideological stance dictated by Stalinism, it is also a firm Confucian cultural attitude resulting from the cult of the ancestors. Indeed, in the North Korean discourse, there is an ideological ‘obesity’ of Leninist style, on top of a Confucian cultural aspect that is concealed by ideology. In Confucian logic, the cult of the ancestors is very important. The North Koreans have been assaulted by the United States and Japan, two countries with which they have no land border. The souls of the ancestors who died during the Korean War defending their country must be avenged. Hence, the duty of the whole nation is to be ready for the war which is still not over and to go there with honor to fight the aggressors. As the Korean War is not yet over but managed by a UN-ordered cease-fire, the call of the ancestors’ cult to the North Koreans is amplified by ideological propaganda. Thus, we witness a coalescence of the ideological effect and the Confucian cultural effect of ancestor worship. And that’s where China comes in!

China is part of the global geopolitical puzzle as an inevitable intermediary to resolve the conflict, by playing a double game: To give reason to the rest of the world and to calm the ardor of North Korea. China’s long-term strategic vision for North Korea is to keep it as an international pariah, largely dependent on China and subsequently, de facto annexed to it, but that’s another story…

In concrete terms, China is obliged to come up with a solution in which the United States and North Korea must sit at the negotiating table. However, China faces two big unknowns: the unpredictable and uncontrollable reactions of both Trump and Kim Jong-un. China, as a good follower of Sun-Tzu, will apply its teachings (‘the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’). It will try to deal wisely with two different war logics: the logic of the Go game of the Confucian world and that of the chess game of the Western world.

China will play the diplomatic card by managing relations with North Korea and the West to avoid falling into an unwelcome violence and to preserve Peace and Harmony on its border. On one side, China will try to hold North Korea on a leash to a certain extent; Kim Jong-un being considered ‘crazy’ by some, he might turn against his ally without warning, a legitimate concern for China to keep in mind. However, negotiating with a Confucian neighbor who shares many common traits is easier and can be dealt with by finding a win-win solution.

On another side, there is the US card that is dependent on Trump’s whims. Two scenarios can be drawn: If Trump does not follow Bush’s steps and refers to the UN to resolve this conflict, China’s role in the global arena will be strengthened and greatly sought. China will once again become the center of the world, a multipolar world and the conductor of harmony in the region. This will serve China’s interests. The Middle Kingdom will work with North Korea to settle the conflict once and for all. This is a scenario that the whole world expects and prays for.

If Trump continues to excite the ire of Kim Jong-un by pouring oil on the fire and decides to intervene without the agreement of the UN, it will be an assured chaos. This unfortunate scenario is in the making, and Nikki Haley’s discourse is not reassuring. The world cannot afford to open a wound dating back to the Cold War. There is too much risk to manage, and too many fronts to fight. This scenario means that the Pentagon would follow Trump’s hallucinations. China will try to stop Trump from launching a Crusade against North Korea using the UN, the sad memory of Afghanistan and Iraq under Bush being still fresh memories. Russia as well will interfere and oppose it, and this could be the equivalent of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that triggered the First World War. The question then will be whether the South Koreans and the Japanese will support and authorize an open conflict with North Korea in which they have so much to lose…

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr. Er-Rafia specializes in cross-cultural management, international affairs, strategy and organizational behavior. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia.

Dr. Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and over twenty business case studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *