By Manpreet Sethi*
Recent videos from North Korea – or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – show their Supreme Commander of the Army, Kim Jong-un, chuckling away as he watches his country’s missile launches. Indeed with the recent test of the claimed ICBM, which has been justified by the country as a legitimate right to self defence, the ‘Dear Leader’ has several reasons to smile. It is the US that is fuming, faced as it is with rather grim options. Exasperated, US President Donald Trump has not been shy of accusing China of not living up to its responsibility to help defang North Korea of its nuclear weapons. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the US was at the end of its strategic patience.
Cheekily, China advised him to undertake proactive diplomacy with the DPRK instead. Refusing to accept American allegations, China has hit hard at what it calls the “China responsibility theory.” It maintains that the core of the problem is the security conflict between the US and the DPRK and that the two should handle it themselves. As stated by the Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman, “China is neither the focus of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, nor the one that escalates the tension.” Rather, it claims to have played a “constructive role” in trying to find a solution and accuses vested interests of “confusing public opinion.”
Indeed, the North Korean nuclear imbroglio is far more complicated for any one country to solve. But, China is punching far below its weight on the DPRK when it shirks its responsibility on the matter by dismissing it as a ‘theory’. After all, China was responsible for the creation of the problem when it provided tacit support to the Kim dynasty’s nuclear efforts, including facilitation of cooperation through other beneficiaries of its own nuclear weapons largesse. And, it is China that still wields the maximum amount of leverage through its economic and political relations with an otherwise isolated Communist regime. While China has gone along on some of the more recent UN Security Council resolutions that sanction the DPRK, it has been careful not to take any measures that destabilise the regime. The US, though, alleges that China ignores/condones/allows some Chinese enterprises to continue working with North Korea. In fact, one Chinese bank was cut out of the American financial system for allegedly being involved in laundering money for North Korea.
Is there a way out of these allegation and counter-allegations of the big powers? It is clear that Kim Jong-un would like to leverage his nuclear and missile programme as a bargaining chip. The key lies in finding what he would be willing to settle for.
China has seconded the DPRK’s suggestion of a halt of US-South Korea military exercises in exchange for a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests by the DPRK. This might not be a bad idea especially since South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, has taken a first step in indicating his willingness to have talks with his neighbour. But the time so gained through this double suspension and the ultimate objective of the talks would have to be to provide a sense of security to the regime.
This would only be possible through some sort of an acceptance of its nuclear status, an issue that has evoked much indignation in the US and South Korea since any hint of grant of such status to a ‘rogue’ nation is deemed anathema to the non-proliferation hardliners.
While this is understandable, it is often forgotten that other nations described as rogue at another point of time in history have been accommodated in the past. China itself was one of them. In 1966, two years after China tested its nuclear weapon, it was described as a rogue regime when the then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong, began the bloody Cultural Revolution in which millions of Chinese died and when it aggressively sought to export its revolution to other countries. But within five years of the Chinese nuclear test, the US had engaged the country in a dialogue, though covertly at first.
The point of the above paragraph is not to condone the actions of North Korea, but to provide a perspective. It must be accepted that denuclearisation of the DPRK is not a possibility. Even a military offensive has little chance of success, but it would certainly extract a very high cost on human life. The next best thing then to do would be to engage the country in such a way as to enhance its sense of security to eventually reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons, enmesh it in an architecture of verifiable safeguards, and nudge its nuclear thinking and behaviour along more acceptable norms. Then, in time, if universal nuclear disarmament was ever to become a reality, North Korea could also join in as another nuclear possessor.
It does not behove China, and nor is it in its regional security interest, to dismiss its responsibility in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis as mere theory. Countries become great powers by taking responsibility for matters of international concern, not merely by announcing huge projects, counting only ‘rogue’ regimes amongst their best friends, and winning over smaller nations only with money and military muscle.
* Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow and Project Leader, Nuclear Security, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi