North Korea

China’s burden

Print edition : May 12, 2017

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a military parade celebrating the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, on April 15 in Pyongyang. Photo: AP/Wong Maye-E

Missiles on display during the parade. Photo: REUTERS/DAMIR SAGOLJ

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech to military personnel on the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan, on April 19. Photo: Bloomberg/Tomohiro Ohsumi

China seems to be proposing to serve as the guardian of the North Korean regime, which is under threat of attack from the U.S. because of its defiant nuclear tests, provided it denuclearises.

FACED with intense pressure from the United States to denuclearise North Korea, reinforced by effective gunboat diplomacy and other forms of coercion in the Korean waters, China is engaged in a feverish exercise to protect its core interests in North Korea and the surrounding areas in the Asia-Pacific.

Essentially, Beijing’s response to an effective show of strength by the domestically beleaguered Trump Administration has boiled down to fusing two equally important goals: ensuring that North Korea is nuclear weapons free and ensuring the preservation of the regime there.

In redefining the ground rules in North Korea, the Chinese had to ensure that they were not caught flat-footed. Speed was essential as the U.S. was doing all it could to demonstrate that the use of military force against North Korea was not an empty threat. The Tomahawk missile attack on the Al Shayrat airfield inSyria by the U.S., carried out deliberately while Chinese President Xi Jinping was in the U.S. as President Donald Trump’s guest, conveyed a simple message: if Tomahawk cruise missiles could rain down in Syria, they could very well do so in North Korea too.

If there was any ambiguity in the message, it was clarified by the shock-and-awe “mother of all bombs” U.S. attack on Afghanistan. In Chinese minds, there was no doubt that bombing in the Achin province of Afghanistan was specifically tailored to convey a message to North Korea.

The message was crisp. Just as the high mountains in Afghanistan, arguably, could not afford protection, so the regime in Pyongyang would not be able to hide its crown jewels—nuclear weapons and missiles—in dug-up tunnels and caverns in the largely mountainous country. Further, the manoeuvring of the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson strike group, which was heading towards Australia, in the direction of the Koreas was proof that the U.S. was accumulating enormous firepower which could be unleashed on North Korea, making the regime of Kim Jong-un possibly untenable.


Complementing the show of force, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, while touring the region recently, was at his sabre-rattling best. “Those who would challenge our resolve or readiness should know, we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response,” he said aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in Yokosuka, Japan. Later, during talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Pence underscored that “all options are on the table”, resorting to the “regime change” phraseology that was favoured by former U.S. President George Bush.

The era of strategic patience is over and while all options are on the table, President Trump is determined to work closely with Japan, with South Korea, with all our allies in the region and with China to achieve a peaceable resolution and the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” he observed.

In response, China appears to have offered the North Korean regime a lifeline by proposing to serve as the guardian of its security, provided it denuclearises.

An editorial in Global Times, affiliated with the People’s Daily flagship, warned that if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continued “its outrageous nuclear missile tests, the likelihood of the U.S. attacking the DPRK will surge…. By that time, the survival of the Pyongyang regime may be a problem.”

The daily asserted that North Korea was not strong enough to confront the severe sanctions which could be on the way. “It has been inevitable for Pyongyang to stop its nuclear missile activities. The DPRK seeks to confront with the United Nations Security Council for a long time with its weak national strength, which is certainly an unattainable utopia,” the daily warned.

“Even if the United States does not launch military strikes on the DPRK, the long-term sanctions are not something that the DPRK can withstand. The DPRK might already become the most isolated country in the world and is almost ‘fully blockaded’. No modern countries can survive in this way.”

The editorial, however, acknowledged that regime survival could not be guaranteed even if North Korea established a strategic relationship with the U.S., citing the case of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“The United States brought down the Saddam’s regime which had no nuclear weapons, and later the ‘Arab Spring’ toppled the [Hosni] Mubarak regime and the [Muammar] Gaddafi regime. All these may have impressed Pyongyang.”

Consequently, it counselled Pyongyang to undertake “large-scale strategic planning” and “look for reliable political allies and umbrellas to achieve soft landing from its present dilemma”.

The daily stressed that China could be the solution to DPRK’s problems. “China is now the world’s second largest economic entity and has been more powerful than ever in its modern history. If China and the DPRK can rebuild firm strategic consensus, China has the power to provide security support for the DPRK and to provide support and help to prosper the nation’s economy.” The editorial stressed that Beijing did not have an agenda of “regime change”, and could be critical to the stability of North Korea once it decided to break out of its isolation.

“China does not have a pro-establishment camp to subvert the regime of the DPRK, nor will it allow such activities in civil sectors. Therefore, China will become the ‘big rear area’ of the DPRK to secure national political stability if the country opens up to the outside.”

The Chinese appear to have reinforced their offer by emphasising that they would not be part of any military manoeuvre that the U.S. may undertake for regime change.

Referring to Mike Pence’s Asia-Pacific visit, another write-up in Global Times spelt out the limits of China’s cooperation with the U.S. by making it clear that Beijing would not partner Washington in any military action against Pyongyang. Nor would it accept a joint military undertaking by the U.S. and South Korea to topple the North Korean government.

The daily warned that “cooperative efforts by China and the U.S. will under no circumstance evolve into any kind of military action against North Korea”.

It added: “Beijing will never support or cooperate with Washington when it comes to implementing solutions that involve using military force against Pyongyang. Nor will Beijing support increasing measures from Washington that involve the direct overthrow of the Pyongyang regime.”

It further pointed out that owing to domestic sentiment in China, a U.S. and South Korean land invasion of North Korea would be unacceptable to Beijing.

“Military action against North Korea is not an easy question to answer. If the blow is light, Pyongyang’s military power would remain intact, and South Koreans could potentially face a revenge attack of some kind. One can only hope that Washington reaches out to Seoul for a second opinion. If the blow is heavy, the Chinese people will not allow their government to remain passive when the armies of the U.S. and South Korea start a war and try to take down the Pyongyang regime. The Chinese will not let something like that happen, especially on the same land where the Chinese Volunteer Army once fought in the early 1950s. It is a land covered with the blood of Chinese soldiers who bravely fought in the early 1950s. Furthermore, if Pyongyang were to be taken by the allied armies of the U.S. and South Korea, it would dramatically change the geopolitical situation in the Korean Peninsula.”

Yet, short of military action, China would be ready to cooperate on the economic side, including imposing stricter U.N. sanctions such as a ban on petroleum exports to North Korea in order to denuclearise its neighbour. “There is even the chance that Beijing could also say ‘yes’ to a potential U.S.-imposed financial blockade against North Korea,” the daily observed.

However, the article warned that the U.S. should not expect instant results from the imposition of economic sanctions. “Sanctions from Beijing will not inspire instant change over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Moreover, if Washington is not willing to take a flexible stand that guarantees security and peace, its stark warnings and sanctions will probably push Pyongyang to resist as best as it can. As the old saying is understood, in order for a ‘stick’ to achieve its desired goal, a ‘carrot’ must be used at the same time.”

Defiant as usual

North Korea has been, expectedly, defiant in the face of the looming military crisis. Xinhua quoted an April 13 statement by a North Korean official, saying that Pyongyang would retaliate with “nuclear thunder and punishment lightning”, giving hostile forces a “taste of real war”.

A spokesperson for North Korea’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace issued a statement condemning the U.S. missile attacks on Syria. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted him as saying: “The U.S. is introducing huge nuclear strategic assets into the Korean peninsula ... seriously threatening the peace and security of the peninsula and pushing the situation there to the brink of a war.”

He warned that this had “created a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment on the peninsula and pose a serious threat to world peace and security.”

Yet, a section of the Chinese media is signalling that though a war cannot be ruled out, “crippling” sanctions may be more likely in case North Korea goes ahead with a sixth nuclear test.

Despite the military build-up and the rhetoric radiating from Washington, the U.S. will have to factor-in a North Korean artillery barrage or, worse, one directed against Seoul and other South Korean population centres and Japan before considering the exercise of its maximalist option.