China props up belligerent North Korea, driving South Korea to tighten ties with Japan and the US.
By Shim Jae Hoon*
In August, a flash flood in parts of North Korea bordering China wiped out entire villages, killing hundreds of people. The disaster mobilized thousands of soldiers working with bare hands while North Korea’s top leader Kim Jong Un was nowhere to be seen.
Instead, he strives to project an image of strength. On September 9, he was in a bunker directing the North’s fifth, and so far most powerful underground nuclear test on the 71st anniversary of the regime’s founding. The North launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile on October 15 and again on October 20 during US–South Korean security consultations in Washington.
More than 25 missiles were launched toward Japan this year, and the Musudan rocket, with a range of 3,500 kilometers that could target US bases on Guam, is a favorite – sending a message that threats won’t cease unless talks with the United States resume. The missile exploded shortly after blastoff, marking another failure for the North’s continuing efforts at attaining long-range missile technology.
President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” – ignoring the nation until Km is ready to talk about denuclearization – needles the regiime. Kim Jong Un, who came to power in December 2011, is impatient to gain recognition as a nuclear state, apparently regarding this as a means to guarantee survival of his state and own life. There’s no indication that Kim will stop despite grinding poverty that has driven nearly a 1,000 people to defect this year alone.
His adventurous course is snapping nerves in South Korea, where President Park Geun Hye has openly called for North Koreans to desert and take refuge in the South. Speaking at the October 1 armed forces day ceremony, she departed from usual cautious statements on the North by calling for North Koreans to resist their government. She declared the South was keeping doors open for their arrival. At the October 11 cabinet session, Park proposed building refugee centers capable of accommodating up to 100,000 people.
Other South Korean dignitaries called on China to help with regime collapse – or at least help change the “regime’s driver,” a clear reference to Kim – to save the North from internal chaos.
Beijing likely won’t accept such a proposition. So, the United States and South Korea are strengthening readiness against any chance of war. South Korea’s and US defense secretaries, met October 20 in Washington for an annual review of the North’s threat. They discussed how the US should provide “extended deterrence,” covering South Korea with a US nuclear umbrella in the event of attack from the North. The rationale: The US will launch a preemptive strike in the event of any credible sign of a nuclear-tipped missile attack. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se urges the allies to use “all tools in the toolkit.” and US Secretary of State John Kerry wants THAAD, the high-altitude area defense anti-missile system deployed to South Korea “as soon as possible.”
This follows other combat-readiness displays such as flights of B-1B strategic bombers over the skies close to the North, and submarine warfare exercises near the demarcation line.
South Korea’s intelligence chief advised a parliamentary session in mid-October that the North could conduct another nuclear test around the US election, November 8, or the presidential inauguration, January 20, to pressure Washington to come to the negotiating table on its terms, including withdrawal of US troops.
Hillary Clinton will likely lead the next administration in Washington. Prospects of Kim facing a better outlook remain slim. Statements by Clinton’s policy advisors suggest no alteration in their assessment of the North Korean threats. While most reject any scenario that assumes a preemptive strike on the North, as that could trigger full-scale war with huge casualties and damages for the South, they nevertheless reject soft-dealing with the North in terms of sanctions and isolation. “I don’t think we could go back to the table without some very clear signals from the North that they are rejecting provocations and they are willing to at least implement their previous promises of constraining their nuclear arsenal,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for President Barack Obama, said in Seoul.
In short, the United States won’t waste time on talks unless Pyongyang signals readiness to give up its nuclear weapons. President Park agrees. “We now know that the North will never give up its nukes and missiles.” She has dispensed with her initial policy of inducing Pyongyang into “trust-based” dialogue.
Park senses that North Korean society is developing serious internal fissures under Kim’s brutal rule. Hundreds of middle-ranking party members are said to have been purged since the 2013 execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek. Another indicator of growing alienation within the system – increasing numbers of defectors from the North, so far up 28 percent from last year. Defectors include soldiers crawling through the mined demilitarized zone and senior diplomats and trade officials in China, Russia and elsewhere deserting, sometimes with government money. The most famous is Thae Yong Ho, a European expert posted in London who defected in August with his family. He fled to the South after failing to carry out a mission to bribe UK officials for confidential nuclear information.
Few experts expect that large-scale defections could cause regime collapse. On top of brutal internal controls, the border with the South is heavily booby-trapped while crossing into China has become more difficult since Kim Jong Un came to power. Especially challenging is how the regime keeps its populace in the dark about news of the outside world.
There are other roadblocks. Seoul’s relations with China, whose cooperation is vital for any political change for the North, have come under considerable strains: Seoul’s decision to accept deployment of the US high-altitude missile defense system to defend itself against the threat has provoked China into ceasing cooperation on UN Security Council sanctions. China’s role in tightening sanctions on the North is kept at a minimal level, and the nation continues to provide oil to keep the regime functioning and buy coal. “You can say that China is indirectly helping the North Korean nuclear program by providing valuable foreign exchange,” said one expert who requested anonymity.
Beijing prosecutes Chinese violators of the sanctions regime only when confronted with evidence. Beijing reluctantly acted on the arrest of a Chinese business person in Dandong accused of contraband exports to Pyongyang, upon evidence produced by US agents.
China’s protective stance over North Korea, its evident refusal to constrain the North’s nuclear push, has convinced Seoul and Washington to adopt a harder line outside the purview of Beijing’s influence. One notable result of this estrangement is Seoul’s growing cooperation with Tokyo on security and defense matters, despite acrimony over their shared history.
One concrete result of this new cooperative phase will be an agreement on exchange of military intelligence, meaning closer security collaboration by the two major US allies regarding North Korean threats. This follows an agreement for holding joint naval exercises with the US Seventh Fleet.
By playing a dangerous nuclear gambit within the uncertain milieu of his isolated regime, Kim is unwittingly helping shape new geopolitical adjustments in the region that may not be necessarily beneficial to his leading patron, China. China resists constraining the North – and in turn, that prompts new encirclement of China by an emerging security phalanx involving Japan, the United States and South Korea.
*Shim Jae Joon is a journalist based in Seoul.