China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, who exchanged a telephone conversation with UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, concerning North Korea’s saber rattling on April 6 said, “China would not allow troublemaking on China’s doorstep.” This statement from the Chinese top diplomat has been quoted by Zhu Feng in his essay “North Korea’s Step Too Far?” in Project-Syndicate.
Does it not suggest policy change on the part of China vis-a-vis North Korea as the latter relies on the former for 90% of energy, 80% of consumer goods and 40% of its food? This question has been asked too often particularly in the wake of latest UN-sponsored sanctions against North Korea reprimanding it for its third nuclear detonation (February 12, 2013).
EU’s former High Representative for Foreign and Security policy and Spain’s former Foreign Minister, Javier Solana has articulated in his essay “The Sino-American Test on North Korea” that China continues to regard North Korea as an important strategic asset. His contention is logical because North Korea serves China as a buffer state shielding the border of its closest neighbor to the west from American troops on the Korean peninsula.
Viewed from this perspective China would be prudent in maintaining the status quo, which is a North Korea remaining loyal to her savior, declining to be a part of future Korean peninsula that realizes reunification in concert with the aspirations of superpower, the U.S. and its traditional ally, South Korea. North Korean leadership perceives that reunification with South Korea under the present circumstances would prove suicidal to her as the latter’s vibrant democracy and buoyant economy would have the increasing bargaining power.
The ups and downs in Sino-American bilateral relationship have influenced the North Korean behavior to a greater extent. Historically, North Korea has been an adversary of South Korea and the 1950 Korean War has added complexities to relations between North Korea and the U. S. as the latter had sided with South Korea during the conflict, which has not ended with the signing of any peace treaty. UN-sponsored Armistice (1953) halted the three-year-long war but has left the scars in adversarial North Korean-American bilateral relationship.
The U.S. has not normalized relations with North Korea and still avoids direct talks at the government level. This raises suspicion in the minds of successive leaders of North Korea, which is run by Kim family since partition of the Korean peninsula in the aftermath of World War II.
The most recent tensions in the Korean peninsula is also attributable to the annual joint military exercises conducted by the U.S. and South Korea-especially when American nuclear-capable B52 and B-2 bombers were added to the drill in the opinion of Javier Solana.
Nuclear enterprise pursued by North Korea, which has even decided to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of the Nuclear Weapons (NPT) about a decade earlier, is implicitly connected to its non-cooperative relationship with the U.S. Like it or not North Korea has become a nuclear power having successfully exploded nuclear devices thrice (2006, 2009 & 2013).
More alarmingly, its February 12 nuclear test was likely a miniaturized device as commented in Javier Solana’s essay “The Sino-American Test on North Korea”. The nuclear experts are worried that successful miniaturization is critical for using nuclear weapons in ballistic missiles.
Interestingly, Solana has even stated that repeated threats from North Korea have turned the northeast Asia into one of the world’s most dangerous hot spots however the same situation can also be a blessing in disguise if the two countries (China and the U.S.) gain a strategic trust with their capabilities to resolve the tensions in the Korean peninsula permanently. Resolution to Korean problem depends predominantly on collaboration between China and America. The former Spanish foreign minister rightly observes that if they manage to cooperate constructively in order to shape a peace acceptable to all sides, this would make not only Korea, but also the region and the world, a safer place.
Echoing the sentiments of his foreign minister, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping has said, “No country should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.” The president has been quoted by Zhu Feng in his piece, “North Korea’s Step Too Far?” Xi was addressing an assembly of primarily Asian political and business leaders at the annual government-sponsored “Boao Forum for Asia” on April 7, 2013.
Based on above reality Zhu Feng concludes that China’s exceptional tough talk (China even supported the UN resolution sanctioning North Korea after its third nuclear test) does not necessarily mean that it intends to abandon Kim Jong-un’s regime; but at the very least, it does suggest that a radical shift in China’s policy toward North Korea might no longer be unthinkable.
In “The Next Korean War”, a recent Foreign Affairs piece, Kier A. Liber & Daryl G. Press have analyzed the current turmoil in North Korea and said that the North Koreans, even pressed to go to war (with the U.S.) if the situation escalates dangerously, the leaders in Pyongyang wish to survive, so they are highly unlikely to do anything as foolhardy as using nuclear weapons.
This is an optimistic note though the war, hypothetically speaking, with North Korea probably means nuclear war because Pyongyang’s only option (to avoid defeat) would be to try to force a ceasefire by playing its only trump card : nuclear escalation as Liber and Press have opined. They elaborate that this strategy, planning to use nuclear escalation to stalemate a militarily superior foe, is not farfetched.
Considering the fact that conflict with North Korea could go nuclear, Washington should put in extra efforts to see that there is no more escalation to push the isolated leaders in Pyongyang to the brink of military confrontation. Moreover, its collaborative endeavors with China, which, of late, has signaled policy transformation with regards its relations with North Korea, may lead to a win-win situation not only for the Koreas but also for the world at large.