By Jonathan Power*
Rocket launches galore in North Korea. Colors and flames in the sky. It is all a bit like a peacock spreading his feathers.
Murders abound. Is this a butcher’s shop? An uncle, a half-brother, a couple of high-placed generals and no doubt others?
President Kim Jong-Un is no Hamlet and seems to have no qualms about murder or death. The day after the killing of his half-brother — which media reports allege was ordered by the leader himself — he was photographed smiling the smile of a psychopath who ditched his conscience somewhere atop the Alps while out on a hike organized by the Swiss school he was sent to.
When he was leaving office, President Barack Obama warned Donald Trump that the nuclear-armed, rocket-wielding Kim would be his most immediate foreign policy challenge. But, apart from saying he is prepared to meet Kim, Trump has not offered up a plan to counter North Korea.
In a recent editorial, The Financial Times said Kim has bad cards but plays them well. One could add that the US has good cards but plays them badly — and that goes for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
There was an occasion when Washington did play its cards well but that was way back in Clinton’s last months. Indeed, at the time it seemed it might well be Clinton’s only foreign policy success. He sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang where she was welcomed by the regime of Kim’s father. It looked like a deal to have North Korea give up its nuclear weapons had been struck but then, the Republicans in Congress effectively blocked it. One cannot trust the Pyongyang regime, but from the North Korean point of view, Washington can’t be trusted either. A promise was not a promise. A deal was not a deal.
Now the only hope is to get China to push harder. Beijing is not enamored of Kim. China does not murder political opponents. China was furious at the murder of Kim’s half-brother for he had been allowed to live in China and it is assumed that the North Korean leader is behind the death. China has long voted at the UN Security Council to condemn North Korea and recently China cut off coal imports from North Korea. Before that, China introduced other sanctions but none that truly cripple the regime.
The “One Belt, One Road” scheme which China is now developing will link it with southwestern Asia all the way to the Black Sea. This scheme will hurt North Korea as it will be surrounded by prosperous states. It will feel even more isolated. Today, North Korea says it does not want serious amounts of Chinese investment or infrastructure built. It fears Chinese influence. When one considers the earlier, more benign, North Korea-China relationship, this must be painful for the North’s industrial leaders. Bilateral trade was supposed to increase and a new bridge was begun between Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea. The bridge is completed but sits unused.
Now the only hope is to get China to push harder. Beijing is not enamored of North Korean President Kim Jong-Un. China does not murder political opponents. China was furious at the murder of Kim’s half-brother for he had been allowed to live in China and it is assumed that the North Korean leader is behind the death.
China is now thinking about new sanctions. The Chinese leadership was furious that North Korea’s recent launch of new rockets was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of China’s Parliament. This was Kim’s way of sending a message to Beijing that he is unhappy with Chinese anti-North Korea policies.
The situation is fluid. South Korea has a good relationship with Beijing. The impeachment last week of its president and the likelihood of there coming to power a more liberal president who will be prepared to talk to Pyongyang will be a good thing. It might even persuade Washington to be more flexible. A good sign is that Trump has said he is prepared to meet Kim. Beijing can complement this with tougher sanctions. It is better that Beijing plays the bad cop.
Recently, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “Our priority is to flash the red light and apply brakes on both runaway trains.” He censured Seoul and Washington for “conducting military exercises of enormous scale and ramping up military pressure on the North. The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?”
Wang made a useful suggestion: “To defuse the looming crisis on the Korean Peninsula, China proposes as a first step that North Korea suspends its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt in US-South Korean exercises. This suspension-for-suspension can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table. Then we can follow the dual-track approach of denuclearizing the peninsula on the one hand and establishing a peace mechanism on the other.”
He concluded: “Nuclear weapons do not bring security and the use of force is no solution. Talks deserve another chance. Peace is still within our grasp.”
I would add to these good ideas one thing: China has to keep squeezing.
*Jonathan Power is a British journalist, filmmaker and writer. He has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 17 years.