Taking the nuke out of nuclear North Korea

Spearhead Analysis – 15.03.2013

By Nida Afaque
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Taking the nuke out of nuclear North KoreaIt started from a missile test and ended with the “annulment” of an armistice. North Korea is once again travelling the road of bullying world powers. When it test-fired a third nuclear missile on February 12th, the United Nation Security Council reacted by passing a resolution calling for even stricter financial sanctions. Compounded with US-South Korea’s annual naval exercises, North Korea stepped up its threat by directly threatening to target Washington. It terminated the Red Cross hotline with South Korea and threatened to even shut down the UN hotline. Kim Jong-Un began inspections of troops prompted the media to consider an impending war.

It hasn’t always been easy to understand North Korea’s motives. The country’s long history of military dictators has steered the nation on a belligerent course. Young Kim Jong-Un lacks experience in both politics and government but boasts the support of a devoted nation. An international crisis might just be what he needs to legitimize his power to his people and the world. While his current tactics have a strong ring of familiarity to them, Kim Jong-Un could exacerbate the situation by sharing its missile technology with other states like Iran. Although N. Korea does not have the authority to annul the 1953 Korean armistice, it can take steps to prove its insignificance by directly assaulting South Korea. It has already has issued a threat against a disputed territory in the Yellow Sea. This has made South Korea anxious since threats related to the Yellow Sea have been acted upon in the past, the most recent been the artillery fire that killed 4 south Koreans on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. If all else fails to make the world yield, North Korea could infuse itself with Kamikaze colors by threatening internal instability. China, for one, is not looking forward to the subsequent refuge crisis.

George Freidman in a recent article described North Korea in terms of its “ferocity, weakness and insanity”. Together these three characteristics mean that North Korea’s threats cannot be taken lightly. In these troublesome times, world powers have been scrambling to the find a solution to diffuse the tension. Because of its longstanding relationship with North Korea, they have turned their hopes towards China in handling the situation. It is North Korea’s biggest trading ally with major exports being food and fuel. China also has a history of resisting UN sanctions against North Korea.

At the same time, China has been trying to desperately dispel assumptions about its leverage over North Korea. The latter has, on many occasions acted antagonistically against China. Chinese citizens were killed in an anti-smuggling attempt in 2010. Similarly, it has continued to conduct nuclear activities despite repeated Chinese appeals and when it tried to mitigate UN sanctions, North Korea hinted at American manipulation. Although China has greatly invested in North Korea’s economy there are cases where the latter has hampered projects instead of facilitating them; Chinese businesses have been told to build their own roads and supply their own electricity.

Despite these transgressions, it is unlikely that China will abandon North Korea. The rogue state is useful in providing a buffer from US presence in South Korea. North Korea’s presence has not only kept the US troop preoccupied, which otherwise might turn their attention to assisting Taiwan, it has also prevented the dominance of Japan’s military.

Legal and illegal trade between China and N. Korea approximates $10 billion every year.  China has invested heavily in Korea’s mineral sector and infrastructure. Besides being N. Korea’s chief food supplier and a significant aid donor, China supplies over 90% of its energy imports. North Korea in return is known to provide Chinese investors with trading concessions and the use of its infrastructure.

China has tended to water down, if not resist, UN sanctions against N. Korea. Cases where it has consented to sanctions occurred when the sanctions were amended to suit its needs. For example, China agreed to the UN Resolution 1718 after requirements for strict economic sanctions were removed. It has been especially been unwilling to implement sanctions against luxury goods. Implementation failures could easily be the fault of inefficient Chinese police or bureaucratic disconnect but the idea of a state sponsored resistance is not unfathomable either.

So where does this leave China?  Its distaste for sanctions and a preference for diplomacy is a widely known fact. However, some analysts believe the slight modifications in China’s attitude towards North Korea are visible through its recent support for sanctions. The Chinese public has out-rightly voiced their disapproval for their Government’s protection of N. Korea. China could chose to exert pressure on Kim Jong-Un by restricting oil exports and reducing investment projects in the country. Such steps would definitely move China into America’s good books. Plus, South Korea and Japan will be less likely to demand nuclear weapons for themselves.

China has much to gain in terms of its reputation by adopting a strict attitude with North Korea. Supporting the latter’s regime which is notorious for human right violations and aggressions against its neighboring counties, is a subtle reminder of China’s failure in human rights too. In addition, the South Sea island dispute has exposed China’s hostile side. Therefore, opting for a hardline stance may earn China accolades globally at the risk of upsetting the delicate security balance in Asia. In ceasing the Chinese lifeline, and thereby aligning with the US, China could trigger a military reaction from North Korea which ultimately would cause its collapse and the reunification of Korea. The regime change would be a significant loss to the Chinese Communist Party. Domestically, China will have to bear the burden of refugees and the possible independence demands of Korean-Chinese residing near the border. On the international front, China will have to contend with sharing a border with a formal ally of the United States.

As a global power, China’s new government has to evaluate domestic and regional issues in a wider context. If China decides to shield North Korea, Japan and South Korea will continue to prepare themselves against a hostile neighbor. And even worse, it would give US more incentives to remain present in the region and develop its own military strategy for North Korea.

However, there may be reasons for North Korea’s diminishing importance to China. Trade with North Korea when seen in the context of China’s economy is paltry. At the same time, relations with Taiwan have been improving which reduces the relevance of a North Korean buffer. Even with the disintegration of North Korea, South Korea and Japan will want to maintain strong ties with the US and bolster their military capabilities against China. In other words, losing North Korea will not bring about a suitable replacement.

No matter how worrying North Korea’s antics are, the possibility of a full-blown war is unlikely. Its provocations at best raise the risk of an unwanted war. Like a child throwing a tantrum, North Korea desires attention which often materializes in the form of concessions like oil imports and food aid. China unfortunately is having a hard time giving into these tantrums.

Supporting as well as shunning North Korea will have long lasting effects. According to Richard Weitz , China is most likely hoping to see a change in the regime’s behavior than a change in the regime itself. Therefore, it would be more interested in dealing with North Korea through tactical (punitive purposes) rather than strategic (annihilative purposes) measures.

As a significant party to the North Korea crisis, the United States will find it useful to collaborate with China. Both countries have overlapping goals in diluting the menace of North Korea and can help provide the security guarantees that North Korea is looking for in return for abandoning its nuclear aspirations. At the same time, US will have to open up to China regarding its “pivot to Asia”; does it want an immediate purge of nuclear weapons from North Korea? Will US troops remain in the region and if so, in what capacity?

In foreign policy, the solution to a crisis is always picking the least bad option. Cooperation between China and the West could address some of the reservations held by the latter. But more importantly, it will give China a chance to protect North Korea while showing allegiance to the United States.