CHINA
24 April 2017
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North Korean imbroglio

North Korea and the US are locked in a stalemate in their struggle over North Korea's growing nuclear threat. How did we land in this imbroglio? Is there a way out, asks John West?

No-one should blame North Korea for equipping itself with adequate self defenses. Every country does that. And following the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea had more reason to worry than most countries, being “a shrimp among whales”. It was indeed surrounded by the giants of the Soviet Union and China, and enemies like South Korea, Japan, and the US with its military bases in these latter two countries.

And as the South Korean economy grew rapidly through the 1970s and 80s, North Korea felt even more threatened with its stagnating centrally planned economy. It was during the 1980s that North Korea reportedly began acquiring nuclear technology with lots of help from friends like Pakistan, China and the Soviet Union.

The Arduous March period

The end of the Cold War and the 1990s was a major turning point in North Korea’s modern history. It suffered greatly from the loss of financial support from the Soviet Union, natural disasters, and economic mismanagement which led to a massive famine with over 300,000 people dying (it did however benefit from out-of-work Russian rocket scientists who sought work in North Korea). And then Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, died in 1994, and was succeeded by his eccentric and fun-loving son, Kim Jong-il.

The Kim dictatorship was spooked by the democratisation and adoption of market economics in Russia, and Soviet satellites in Central and Eastern Europe, and Mongolia. The reunification of East and West Germany also exacerbated North Korea’s fear of a US desire to reunify North and South Korea.

The lesson that North Korea drew from the end of the Cold War was that rather transforming into a market economy and democracy, it should double down on efforts for regime survival. So it invested heavily in its military capabilities both to act as a deterrent to potential aggressors and to extract economic concessions from the US, Japan and South Korea. North Korea also maintained firm control over the economy (the self reliance or “juche” philosophy), in contrast to China’s market opening.

Nuclear tests and missile launches

The US interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya only confirmed the vulnerabilities that the Kim regime felt, and vindicated its policy of building up nuclear weapons. As a North Korean official once said, "the US would not have invaded Afghanistan if it had nuclear weapons".

Over the past two decades or so North Korea has been playing cat and mouse with the international community over its development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Following each nuclear test or missile launch, the United Nations Security Council declares its condemnations, and imposes trade and financial sanctions on North Korea, but nothing changes. “Six party talks” involving North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, US and Russia, were held from 2003 to 2009. But North Korea sabotaged and walked away from these diplomatic efforts to bring a halt to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.

China and North Korea

Today, the Chinese government is immensely irritated North Korea, and sees great dangers in its volatile behaviour. But China has played a great role in the development of the North Korean menace. Some 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade is with China, which is also responsible for the lion’s share of its foreign investment. China also hosts thousands of North Korean workers, most of whose wages goes back to the North Korean regime. North Korea is highly dependent on Chinese aid, especially for food and energy.

The Chinese have allowed North Korean state-owned enterprises to operate in China. They very often buy materials and goods from Chinese and international companies, and then export them to North Korea. Then there are Chinese enterprises like the Dandong Hongxiang Development Company which been helping North Korea procure raw materials for nuclear weapons. And Chinese banks reportedly hold some of the Kim family assets. At the UN Security Council, China always pushes for moderation and loopholes in sanctions on North Korea. China routinely condemns North Korea's actions, and urges it to comply with UN resolutions. But it has never implemented US sanctions seriously.

Why would China support such a heinous regime? It's a question of strategic buffers. As Beijing looks out towards the Pacific Ocean, it feels encircled by a string of US allies -- from South Korea and Japan, to Taiwan and the Philippines. In other words, the Chinese see North Korea as a critical protective buffer for them against the US.

So China does not want a regime change that would see the US and China battling for control of the Korean peninsular. The last thing that China wants is a failed nuclear state on its border, with the prospect of millions of poor refugees flooding into the country. It is also fearful that regime change could result in a reunification of North and South Korea, with the new state aligned with the US, and American troops sitting directly on its border.

China is of course not the only friend of North Korea. The Pakistan Energy Commission has been reportedly selling nuclear materials to North Korea, some of which they have initially bought from China. And the recent murder of Kim Jong-nam has highlighted the close links between Malaysia and North Korea.

Enter Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump

US/North Korean relations have been on a downward slide for many years. But North Korea’s rogue activities took a dramatic turn for the worse with the ascension of Kim Jong-un to North Korea’s leadership, following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. The new thirtysomething year old dictator, with no direct military or governmental experience, has had to consolidate and assert his leadership, to win the necessary loyalty of the military. This has meant eliminating all possible rivals, including his uncle and most recently his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, as well as accelerating his missile and nuclear programme.

Kim Jong-un conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 ballistic tests in 2016 alone. And already, he has greeted Donald Trump with two missile launches in 2017.

After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, outgoing President Barack Obama warned Trump that the first major challenge he would face was North Korea. Indeed, North Korea is widely perceived to be the greatest threat to security, stability and peace in Asia and the rest of the world. Today North Korea could attack South Korea, Japan, and even US bases in Guam with nuclear and other missiles. And with the rapid progress that North Korea is making, it is just a matter of a few years before it could even reach mainland US with a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile.

The bellicose Donald Trump, surrounded by ex-army generals in his Cabinet, may not be the coolest head for dealing with North Korea. They have announced that the era of "strategic patience" is over. That all options are on the table, including the military option. They are pushing China to implement sanctions seriously. The possibility of taking out Kim Jong-un has also been raised.

To protect South Korea and America’s troops from North Korean missiles, the US has hurriedly installed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. But this has sent China “ballistic” as it is concerned that it will enable the US to spy into its territory. Beijing is thus imposing economic sanctions on Korea.

The Trump team believes that by ratcheting up the pressure, North Korea can be forced to give up its nuclear weapons. But the evidence suggests that the more North Korea feels cornered, the more it will still stick to its nuclear weapons. North Korea sees the US and US-supported South Korea as being the principal threats to its security.

Trump has also been pushing China to help stop North Korea’s nuclear programme. He has suggested that the US might go softer on China’s trade policies, if it helps on North Korea. The US has also told China that if does not like the THAAD system, it should help remove the need for it.

Nowhere man

Chinese President XI Jinping now seems equally fearful of Donald Trump as of Kim Jong-un. He is pushing both sides to de-escalate tensions, and engage in dialogue. At the same time, China is cutely claiming that the North Korean problem, is a problem between the US and North Korea.

Some experts argue that a grand deal is the only hope -- freeze of North Korea’s nuclear programme in return for economic assistance and a guarantee that the US would not seek to overthrow the regime. But the level of distrust between the US and North Korea is so great that it is difficult to imagine such a grand deal being agreed.

While China is fearful of instability on the Korean peninsular, it is also quietly rejoices at the inability of the US to manage the North Korean crisis, and also at the US’s supplications for China to solve this problem for them.
Tags: china, north korea, dprk, kim jong-un