Monday, December 6, 2010

North Korean Crisis and China


Here's an article of mine on the North Korean crisis, looking specifically at the role of China. The article was published on the ORF website and can be accessed here.

China has to recognise the pitfalls of its approach as it deals with North Korea. China has to recognise that North Korean actions are triggering several developments that are not necessarily in the interests of China. For instance, it has triggered major debates on defence in Japan about becoming proactive in defending themselves, including the option of nuclearisation. Can a nuclearised East Asia be ruled out in the next decade if Pyongyang is to continue on the same path?



North Korea appears to be in an aggressive mode with its second attack this year against South Korea, provoking the world at large, and certainly its neighbours, to respond. In March this year, Pyongyang had sunk the 1,200 ton South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, which prompted the United Nations to issue a resolution condemning the incident, although it did not blame Pyongyang for the incident. This week Pyongyang shelled a South Korean fishing community and military base in Yeonpyeong, a disputed island, on Nov.23 with highly inflammable ammunition that killed four people, including two civilian construction workers, and blew the windows out of a school and torched houses. As of November 29, the US and South Korea had completed their third day of naval exercises off the Korean Peninsula’s west coast, although Seoul has cancelled the live firing drill at Yeonpyeong.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang has also clarified that it is pursuing its nuclear programme vigorously. It recently stated that it has a uranium-enrichment facility with thousands of centrifuges, to provide for a light water reactor, for “peaceful purpose of meeting electricity demand.” Quoting an editorial from the ruling communist party’s newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, media reports said, “Our nuclear energy development, which is for peaceful purposes and to solve the electricity demand, will be more active.” In fact, this was the first time that Pyongyang has openly talked about its nuclear programme. The existence of the modern enrichment facility was disclosed by Stanford University professor and scientist Siegfried S Hecker, who was given a tour of the site on November 12.1

What has prompted Pyongyang to adopt such hardline measures in the recent years? The “military-first politics” of Kim Jong Il, the expansion of DPRK military capabilities and its increasing defence budget continue to be an area of concern. Pyongyang has continued to argue that nuclear weapons and missiles along with their conventional capabilities are required as deterrents against possible South Korean, Japanese and American military aggression against North Korea. The North Korean leadership has also maintained that this is one possible way that it can get the international attention and that the world will engage it only under such conditions. This argument is difficult to sell anymore given that the international community, and the US in particular, have been engaged with Pyongyang on a bilateral basis as well as through the Six Party talks format.

Second, is there a message for the world that the new leadership in North Korea is as hardline as the old one? In fact, continuity can be visualised as far as Pyongyang’s future trajectory is concerned, given that Kim Jong Il chose the youngest son and not the older one (who is considered a peacenik) to carry on with the Kim Jong Il legacy in Asian affairs.

What has been the role of China in this regard? The Chinese interests, while they seem congruent on the surface with that of the US and other regional powers, are actually different and incongruent. For instance, the Chinese and American perspectives about the issue of North Korean stability are very different. For the regional powers as well as the US, what they want is a denuclearised North Korea at peace with its neighbours, and also a country that protects the human rights for its own people, whereas Chinese interests are to ensure that there is no crisis that might prompt the influx of large number of refugees into China and that there are no US troops on the Chinese borders, say if South Korea takes over the North after a collapse. Therefore, the Chinese interests are driven by narrower perceptions of North Korean stability.

Pyongyang has adopted a defiant attitude in its dealings with its neighbourhood, with the possible exception of Beijing. Beijing has become almost the only friend of the Kim Jong Il regime, extending the crucial economic, political and moral support. China remains North Korea’s largest trading partner as well as an important source of food, fuel and arms.2 Given that Pyongyang’s relations, particularly with Seoul, have declined drastically after the two nuclear tests, Beijing’s bargaining power with the North Korean leadership should have increased dramatically.

Some analysts argue that the US is dependent on China to put any serious pressure on North Korea. While this may be partly true, it is also possible that China has not put any serious pressure on North Korea because they see it as a buffer state between itself and the US allies in its neighbourhood. Second, with the US having been preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, China has managed to create a vital strategic space in Asia, particularly as the US deals with problem cases like North Korea or Myanmar. In both of these cases, China has emerged as the conduit for any dealing, be it the democracy, human rights or the WMD proliferation issues. Therefore, China does not want to lose that privileged position where the West has to route itself through Beijing to achieve some of their foreign policy objectives.

However, some have argued that the West has overestimated the Chinese hold on North Korea and that Beijing is unable to exercise that kind of influence on Pyongyang. There are experts who note that China is beginning to reach a point of frustration with North Korea on three issues: its increasingly belligerent behaviour; growing economic crisis; and the leadership succession issues. The recently-released WikiLeaks too suggested that China may have been re-thinking its policy towards North Korea, although the Cheonan incident and the recent shelling incident have established that Beijing has not altered its policy towards North Korea. There have been undoubtedly subtle changes in the last few years in China’s approach towards Pyongyang, evident from the support lent by China in imposing sanctions on North Korea post-nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.3 There were reports which noted that after the Cheonan incident, although China did not issue any action against North Korea despite strong evidence, President Hu Jintao is believed to have directed the leadership to be less provocative and avoid confrontations.4 Nonetheless, the subtle change that one witnessed is clearly reversible, which was evident in the recent crises.

Whether there is a change or not, China’s role in finding a solution to the North Korean crisis is critical. However, like any other country, China will get on board with an effective response only if it sees that its interests are affected or its interests can be served better by an active role. For China, there are three issues that could drive a more active role. As mentioned earlier, one of the major imperatives for China keeping Pyongyang as an ally is because it is a buffer state between the pro-west US-allies and Beijing. The Chinese have been paranoid about the US troops on its border. Second, in the case of any instability in North Korea or a serious conflict, there could be a huge refugee influx into China -- a nightmare scenario becoming a reality for Beijing. Lastly, any serious crisis on the Korean Peninsula can also weaken the Chinese standing and hurt its leadership, exposing its inability to deal with a problem successfully in its neighbourhood. This will seriously damage the image of the global leader-in-the-making.

In conclusion, China has to recognise the pitfalls of its approach as it deals with North Korea. China has to recognise that North Korean actions are triggering several developments that are not necessarily in the interests of China. For instance, it has triggered major debates on defence in Japan about becoming proactive in defending themselves, including the option of nuclearisation. Can a nuclearised East Asia be ruled out in the next decade if Pyongyang is to continue on the same path?

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