INTERVIEW w/ Josef Gregory Mahoney

Josef Gregory Mahoney is a professor of politics at East China Normal University, where he also leads the International Graduate Program in Politics as well as the International Center for Advanced Political Studies.  He has authored more than 70 publications and was formerly a Senior Fellow with the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau in Beijing. Dr. Mahoney also served as a member of the team that translated Jiang Zemin’s Selected Works. While his expertise is in Chinese politics and comparative politics, he has agreed to address questions related to China and North Korea.

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Sheena Qiao: How can we understand the position that North Korea is in through its history? In other words, how did we get here?

Gregory Mahoney: One of the first things we can note is that, historically, there was a strong correlation between China’s involvement in Korea and American involvement in Taiwan. This is less the case today, but it should be remembered that China always thinks about security in a broader sense than most Americans, who tend to focus on separate issues without understanding how China sees it as a whole. For example, Syria has long been a security concern for China, since they saw that country as an entry point for Western powers to project into Central Asia. And more recently, of course, Syria has been projected as a key crossroads for China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) development plan. So while Americans and others might be viewing security more limitedly, Chinese leaders are always taking a much larger and more integrated view.

In the case of North Korea, China paid a very high blood price to stop the Americans, to push them back to the 38th parallel, and to then hold them there over the course of difficult negotiations. Even Mao Zedong lost a son in the fighting. Such sacrifices are usually attributed to the close relationship between the North Korean and Chinese communists. It has also been attributed to Mao’s desire to impress Soviet leader Josef Stalin with China’s capacity to resist the United States. Strategically, China also wanted to the US off its border. Although China initially aimed at expelling the US from the Korean peninsula entirely, it settled for creating a buffer state.

With the Korean peninsula divided and under a ceasefire, North Korea began developing a distinct path under Kim Il-sung: they began to develop the philosophy of juche. This is a concept that originated during the Korean dynastic period as a self-strengthening movement. It was redeveloped initially by Kim Il-sung as a particularization of Marxism to meet Korean needs. It ended up becoming, however, the central ideology. In the international press, there is still a tendency for people to refer to North Korea as a “Stalinist state” or a Communist state. In fact, the words “Communism” and “Marxism” have disappeared almost entirely from North Korean discourse, a development that has been underway for almost two decades. Juche today still means self-reliance and self-sufficiency, but it has also developed a type of ‘pure-blood,’ radical nationalism, asserting that North Koreans are either the most advanced or among the most advanced people in the world and that the Kim family is at the pinnacle.  Juche really began to turn ever more inward with the fall of Communism in Russia and the rise of China’s market economy. Consequently, North Korea found itself increasingly isolated in terms of the path that they were taking, one that includes, strangely enough, a hereditary dictatorship. But a key point is that while this movement has its modern beginnings as a form of resistance to the West, South Korea, and Japan, it ends up picking up steam in part because of changes in Russia and China, and possibly, even, a growing fear of China.

SQ: That seems to be rather counterintuitive, since North Korea has been China’s protégée in international relations for the last thirty-some years. Why would North Korea be fearful of China?

GM: Everything that North Korea has done in developing its nuclear program, the United States has used as an opening to bring in more military resources into East Asia, which in turn threatens China. At the same time, there has been concern in China of two separate risks for North Korea: first, the risk of war, and second, the risk that it might simply collapse. If the regime falls, there could be a mass exodus of North Koreans into China, which China would have to contend with, while also trying to gain control over North Korean weapons and preventing the South Koreans and Americans from moving up to the Chinese border. It has been said—this has never been independently verified, however— that China has been building up forces on its North Korean border for some time now.

Now, the problem with that is: You do not go in when the collapse has happened, you go in when you think the collapse is coming. That means that, for North Korean leadership, they realize that their greatest threat may actually be China.  

SQ: Is that related to why Chinese-North Korean relationships have cooled considerably?

GM: Yes. There are persistent rumors that Kim Jong-un’s brother [Kim Jong-nam] and his uncle [Jang Song-Thaek], who was the main North Korean connection to China, were part of a conspiracy that would help leadership transition in that scenario. Whether or not that is true is unverifiable at this time. But other developments are underway. For example, the Friendship Bridge that connects the two borders has been shut down. A reported eighty percent of China’s trade with North Korea passes over that bridge. The official reason [for the shutdown] is that the bridge is being repaired. However, flights between the two countries have also been suspended. It is winter, which means it is the most difficult time of year for North Korea. Meanwhile, cultural exchanges are being terminated.. These events coincide with the Chinese envoy who went to North Korea last week, whom Kim refused to meet. The envoy was sent as part of a tradition when the “brother parties” brief each other after major congresses. Kim’s snub has been interpreted by many people as being directed at Chinese leader Xi Jinping, not only for supporting sanctions but for the ways Xi had feted Trump with a “state visit-plus” during the latter’s recent visit to Beijing.

SQ: So does China currently actually have leverage over North Korea?

GM: Effectively, the answer is not much and probably not enough to be leverage. But what China has at this point is the ability to threaten North Korea militarily because, to a certain extent, that is already what China is doing with build-ups on the border and contingency planning. But on the whole, China would rather deescalate and would rather not involve itself in a conflict.  Conversely, the US and countries like Japan have incentives to escalate, perhaps not to the point of war, but to the point of rearming Japan and putting advanced weaponry like THAAD in South Korea, ramping up bomber flybys and naval operations.  South Korea, of course, has taken a more moderate position and has already paid a significant price for THAAD. There has been an exodus of South Koreans and their businesses from China as part of the Chinese government response against THAAD. South Korean trade has been hurt because of it. Relations with China, which had been really good just a couple of years ago, have fallen badly. This no doubt pleases Washington.

SQ: How likely or unlikely is denuclearization?

GM: One of the problems associated with denuclearization is that there tends to be a vulgar double standard at work. Why is Iran developing nuclear weapons? Because Israel has them, and the United States never talks about Israel having nuclear weapons. China has committed to North Korea’s denuclearization, at least in terms of rhetoric, and the United States is committed to it, but why would North Korea give [the weapons] up? Almost every international affairs specialist says North Korea has hardened its position in response to what the United States did to Gaddafi, despite Libya abandoning WMD development and cooperating the US in the so-called War on Terror. And then, the United States helped overthrow and kill Gaddafi, while Libya has been a mess ever since. This, of course, was also done in Iraq, and it was an aim in Syria. Thus, everything the United States has done so far has convinced North Korea that developing nuclear weapons is the right thing to do.

Right now, North Korea holds a military edge because of its capacity to inflict unacceptable losses on Seoul. But that’s mainly using World War II-level technology. But that technology costs a lot of money to produce and maintain. What if you could downsize that force because you have a viable nuclear attack or counterattack option? Not only would there be an incentive to build a weapon that would keep aggressors at bay, it might also end up producing cost savings in defense spending, which North Korea sorely needs.

SQ: What is China’s position in all of this?

GM: As noted previously, China never views things in isolation. Although Taiwan is still a hot-button issue, and although Trump was a bit provocative in taking the phone call with the Taiwanese leader [Tsai Ingwen], the larger provocation right now is—or has been, at least—over the South China Sea. I am not saying that there is a new dialectic, but China looks at its security posture comprehensively, with respect to its greatest threat, which is the United States. The United States has tried to gain leverage over China repeatedly and that began very aggressively after 9/11 when America penetrated Central Asia, and it continues till this day with struggles underwater and on the Korean Peninsula.

SQ: What are the best policy options for Xi?

GM: The current Kim has not visited China like his father. Kim Jong-un has made it clear that his decision to more aggressively pursue nuclear weapons was the right decision given what he considers to be the unbridled provocations of the United States. The North Koreans seem to be convinced that they have the right strategy. And the fact of the matter is, they do. They are doing precisely what they should be doing, and it is very hard to argue against that. How are you going to convince North Korea otherwise? Many sober analysts believe the only way you can convince North Korea to denuclearize is to provide them with security guarantees, and, yet, exactly the opposite has been happening, not only on the American side but probably as well on the Chinese side because North Korea feels vulnerable on multiple fronts.

SQ: What direction do you envision American-North Korean relations taking during the Trump Administration?

GM: It is clear that the United States is adjusting its strategy. It’s less clear the extent to which Trump is leading this or going along with other plans. It might be said that previous administrations were listening more to the intelligence services, and Trump seems to be listening more to the Pentagon. Those are two very different cultures, and they have very different advisers and experts. Trump has surrounded himself with generals who see the world in a particular way. On one hand, the argument could be made that the intelligence services did not ultimately serve previous American presidents well, as the situation in North Korea has only gotten worse. On the other hand, almost any sober military assessment says that it is impossible to solve the situation right now, military. Nevertheless, this does not seem to prevent Trump from ramping up the rhetoric, provoking North Korea, and using this an opening to position more military in East Asia in a way that unnerves China. And Trump still blames China periodically for North Korea. Is that strategic or is it simply petty? Some people in non-American, non-Chinese diplomatic circles believe that there is a method to his madness, particularly as we see emergent developments related to the so-called Indo-Pacific and the “Anti-China Quad,” which aims at a new China containment strategy involving the US, Japan, Australia and India. But even if there is a rational strategic mind at work here, I’m not yet convinced that it is really engaging conditions in Asia in realistic or sustainable ways.

SQ: To wrap up this interview, I think it is worthy to note that the United States and North Korea are technically on a ceasefire from the Korean War. What is the significance of this?

GM: Many people seem to have this idea, in terms of rhetoric, that Trump or Kim need to declare war against each other. That is not true. A state of war technically already exists. One of the things that constrains American presidents is that they are required to receive support from Congress in order to declare and pay for war. But the United States is technically already in a state of war on the Korean peninsula, so would the President need a new authorization to engage militarily with North Korea? Furthermore, South Korea has demanded the right to determine whether hostilities begin, in the event that the US takes a preemptive approach and attacks first. Thus far, the Trump Administration has not answered South Korea’s demand. Given these conditions, and whether we go to war or not, we might be a lot closer to war than many imagine.