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Will North Korea be China’s Wildcard Against the West?

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In the realm of adversarial global politics, the relationship between China and North Korea emerges as a calculated play in Beijing’s strategic arsenal against the West. China’s reticence to disrupt North Korea’s military ties with Russia reflects a deeper, more insidious strategy. Rather than a partner in regional stability, North Korea is wielded by China as a wildcard, its unpredictability and provocations serving as a tool to divert and destabilize Western powers, particularly the United States.

Analysts point to China’s refusal to intervene in North Korea’s escalating military cooperation with Russia as a clear indication of Beijing’s broader ambitions. Daniel DePetris of Defense Priorities captures this sentiment, highlighting China’s disinclination to undermine its position merely to align with U.S. interests, especially against the backdrop of the Ukrainian conflict. This approach underscores China’s willingness to exploit North Korea’s volatility, leveraging it as a strategic asset to counterbalance and distract U.S. and European efforts in the region.

The strategic utility of North Korea to China transcends conventional allyship. Beyond the economic aid and political support lies a darker undercurrent of strategic manipulation. North Korea acts as China’s catspaw, its unpredictable military ventures and nuclear brinkmanship creating a constant source of tension that keeps Western powers off-balance. This dynamic allows China to assert its influence more freely, capitalizing on the distractions North Korea provides.

Recent escalations, including North Korea’s missile tests and its burgeoning alliance with Russia, shed light on the intricate game of shadows being played by China. Despite global condemnation and the potential for destabilization, China’s response has been notably subdued. Spokesperson Liu Pengyu’s comments that “China has no intention to interfere with the cooperation between two sovereign countries” of North Korea and Russia subtly hint at Beijing’s tacit approval of North Korea’s actions, as long as they serve China’s strategic interests.

This strategic calculus is rooted in a history of economic and diplomatic support that has forged a strong bond between China and North Korea. Yet, beneath the surface of this alliance lies a more sinister strategy, where China benefits from the chaos sown by North Korea’s actions. Robert Manning from the Stimson Center elucidates this point, noting China’s role as an economic lifeline for Russia, thus highlighting the interconnectedness of China’s relationships with its two neighbors. Through this web of alliances, China strengthens its position, using North Korea’s unpredictability as a strategic counterweight to Western influence.

In this view of international relations, China’s manipulation of North Korea’s irrationality emerges as a deliberate strategy. By allowing Pyongyang to teeter on the brink of military provocations, Beijing enhances its leverage, using the specter of North Korean instability as a bargaining chip against the West.

Historically, this is not an uncommon strategy. The U.S. still uses Israel in such a role sometimes (albeit, without the illogic and insanity of North Korea), and the U.S. and the old Soviet Union fought proxy wars throughout the world during the cold war.

North Korea has become a pawn in the Great Game – but a pawn with less predictable behavior than most.

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