By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
On 06 January 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth round of nuclear tests, and there are speculations that it soon going to conduct another rounds of missile tests. Generally, it is understood to be part of North Korea’s reckless behaviour, which hardly has any rational explanation. However, a close observation of Pyongyang’s behaviour over the last few years make it clear that there is a method in its madness. Following the death of its death of its leader Kim Jong-il in 2011, North Korea had to face an increasingly drifting China; and especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping took office, Beijing overtly tried to engage Seoul and placate it from the US alliance system.
China desires to reach out to South Korea in a more substantial way for several reasons. First, Seoul would be a vibrant economic partner for Beijing as both the economies have several complementarities. Second, by forging a ‘trust’ relationship with South Korea, China could have a strategic achievement in the context of its growing contestations with Japan and the US in the regional politics. Third, if Beijing assumes a neutral position vis-a-vis inter-Korean disputes, its regional stature and attractiveness would significantly increase, and that would be quite imperative for China to emerge as the centre of unipolar Asia.
The change in Chinese policy towards the Korean peninsula has been evident, with annual summit meetings between the leaders of Beijing and Seoul from 2013; the signing of Free Trade Agreement; and South Korea becoming one of the founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In contrast, there has been hardly any substantial exchange between China and North Korea during this period. The rift in Beijing-Pyongyang relations became obvious when China cooperated with the international community in imposing sanctions on North Korea after its third nuclear test in February 2013; and no meeting between the top leaders of the two countries; and the execution of Chang Sung-thaek, who was considered to be the point person in North Korea to China.
North Korea hardly had any option to deal with this challenge. From Pyongyang’s perspective, there are three important goals that must be pursued in the context of its relations with Beijing. First, the North Korean nuclear and missile programs must not become negotiable as China might try to bargain it for Beijing’s broader foreign policy objectives in the regional politics. Second, China should not be allowed to interfere in the North Korea’s domestic politics or economic reform. Third, Beijing’s growing proximity with Seoul must be stopped and the China-North Korea bilateral must be reverted to the old days. Pursuing all these objectives together appeared to be extremely ambitious and impossible given the meager material and diplomatic capabilities North Korea had.
However, after the fourth round of nuclear tests and the current scenario, it appears that North Korea has been able to achieve most of these goals. By consistently taking a non-compromising position on its nuclear and missile issues, it has almost made its de-nuclearisation non-negotiable. China has probably realised this obvious fact and not keen to get another round of sanctions passed by the UN Security Council. It is the first time that there is no UNSC resolution in sight even after over twenty days of the North Korean nuclear tests. By being adamant to keep its domestic politics autonomous from China, North Korea sends a clear message to Beijing by its many acts that it would not blink in any tug-of-war. By executing Chang Sung-thaek; Kim Jong-un’s refusal to participate in the Victory Day Parade in Beijing; recalling its all-female band Moranbong from Beijing after some disagreements with China; and by carrying out its fourth nuclear test, Pyongyang’s message to Beijing is extremely clear and is probably also heard by China.
Last but not the least, North Korea has successfully made it almost certain that South Korea would join the US’ Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system – South Korean President Park Geun-hye has openly expressed her intention to do so – and resultantly, Seoul’s relations with Beijing would suffer. It would leave China with no choice but to revert to its proximity with North Korea. In fact, there were fierce debates in South Korea on whether it should be satisfied with the Korea Air Missile Defense system, which is effective against low-flying ballistic missiles, or if it should deploy the THAAD, which is effective in high-flying ballistic missiles. In the past two years, North Korean missiles tests have deliberately been conducted to render South Korea insecure. Pyongyang tested its Rodong missiles in March 2014 by firing them vertically, thereby reducing its range of 1000-1500 kilometers to 650 kilometers or less. North Korea also tested its Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile SLBM in May 2015 to push South Korea towards the THAAD.
Thus, so far, Pyongyang has been successful in its foreign policy goals despite the particularly limited resources it possesses. If South Korea joins the THAAD, it would be a success for North Korea. It will be interesting to see whether China and South Korea will be able understand the North Korean design or remain naive in their engagements, resulting in a possible contestation ahead.
* Sandip Kumar Mishra
Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, Delhi University, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS