Is North Korea a Buffer Zone for China or America?

News about Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, reported that he was executed on 12 December 2013. The Asahi Newspaper wrote on December 3, 2013 that Jang Song Thaek’s staff members might have been executed according to the South Korean National Intelligence Service. Jang Song Thaek was the second most powerful person in North Korea and had supported Kim Jong Un after the death of Kim Jong Il. The reason for this purge is said to be Kim Jong Un’s attempt to strengthen his power.[1] His uncle was the most important person for him but also the most dangerous in future to his position.

Jang Song Thaek was in charge of the economic reforms in North Korea and had strong connections to China. The North Korean military would regain its strong power, wielded during Kim Jong Il’s tenure, after having removed Jang Song Thaek’s power, reported Sankei News.[2]

The stronger China’s growing economic and military powers get, the better gets China’s position against North Korea. North Korea as a buffer zone for China against US power on the Korean Peninsula might crumble. China’s recent actions, e.g. setting up the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and a near-miss between military vessels in the South China Sea on December 5, 2013, hint at growing self-confidence. The incident of the near-miss could be very significant in order to analyze China’s intentions in this region. A Chinese warship tried to impede and stop the US naval vessel, Cowpens. After a bridge to bridge communication, both sides maneuvered to avoid a collision. This incidence happened in international waters according to US officials.[3]

It is difficult to say if this incident happened by mistake or by China’s design. However, recent events could imply China’s intention to eliminate American military presence in this region. In addition, the Chinese military’s readiness and self-confidence might have grown to such a point that China now faces up to and competes with the US military in the South and East China Sea. Inefficient American foreign policies and also power shifts in the Middle East and Europe could additionally motivate China. Even the most reliable partner of America, the United Kingdom, seems to go a separate way towards China. Cameron’s visit to China and the agreement that Chinese investors get a stake in building a new nuclear power plant in UK show that human rights issues including the concern of Tibet’s independence no longer obstruct politics, quite unlike to Obama’s administration.

The US troops stationed in South Korea have been reduced and moved from the front line (Demilitarized Zone) to the south of the Korean Peninsula. This means that the mechanic of automatic American involvement (trip-wire) triggered by a North Korean invasion has been given up. South Korea is also taking over command rights from the United States in 2015.[4] If China took harsh sanctions against North Korea because of a missile test, North Korea could lose his strong supporter. North Korea’s military aggressions could cause its isolation and might lead to domestic instability due to poverty. It is said that many North Korean refugees would rush to China, South Korea, Japan and so forth. Should this happen, South Korea could be the most affected among these countries. Furthermore, the movement for a united Korea still exists in South Korea which therefore might make it very difficult to reject North Korean refugees. The buffer zone could now be for the US, not for China. Before America hands over the military command rights to South Korea, it may not desire to be involved in confrontations with China on the Korean peninsula. Both America and China might wish to avoid a direct confrontation. US vice-president Biden’s China visit in the beginning of December indicates the weakness of American politics towards China. China’s recent conduct is very aggressive. Thus, America would like to work together with China to keep North Korea stable. This could burden America more than China. Moreover, China’s extended air defense identification zone includes an island that both China and South Korea dispute about. This might not be by mistake. South Korea has recently made efforts to establish a friendly partnership with China. Hence, the redrawing of the Chinese ADIZ, now also including an island claimed by South Korea, might have shocked South Korea. This kind of China’s attitude could be similar to the tribute system that China historically employed to surrounding countries. South Korea used to be a tributary of China, and China might show and make feel its superior position to South Korea again.

The time for North Korea to enjoy playing off China against America might, at last, come to an end. North Korea might stand facing a difficult position, namely a power shift that was not anticipated in this way and scope. Wily keeping off the stage for the time being, Russia’s foreign policies need be scrutinized closely, too.


[1] Asahi Shinbun: Kitachosen Nr. 2 shikkyaku ka, December 3, 2013. [Accessed December 4, 2013].

[2] Sankei News: Kenryoku Ikkyoku shuchude Gun to antou a, December 4, 2013. . [Accessed December 4, 2013].

[3] The Washington Post: U.S. complains to China after warships narrowly avoid collision, December 14, 2013. [Accessed December 5, 2013].

[4] Kumiko Ahr (2013): How Japan Defends Itself – Facing the Power Shifts in East Asia. 110. (unpublished).

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