Can Beijing really rein in North Korea?

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The political insanity of the dynastic leadership of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea), should normally have been a source of considerable embarrassment to Beijing, but the latter has, over the decades, successfully leveraged this for strategic and diplomatic gains. Strategically, thanks to Beijing and Pyongyang being supposedly close buddies-the international community is led to believe that none other than China can discipline an arrogant and wayward North Korea.

Diplomatically, Beijing uses Pyongyang as a force multiplier for its policy of threatening the sovereignty of those countries in the Pacific rim, which in league with the US,  proactively work on Beijing’s containment.

Diplomatically, Beijing uses Pyongyang as a force multiplier for its policy of threatening the sovereignty of those countries in the Pacific rim, which in league with the US,  proactively work on Beijing’s containment. Beijing’s greatest security challenges will come from; a  higher level  US dependency by China’s adversaries in the Pacific rim ; the reunification of the two Koreas ; the rising aspirations from Taiwan culminating in a declaration of independence ; more strident anti-Beijing stance from Hong Kong challenging the “ one nation two systems “ concept adopted by Beijing.

The aftermath of its hydrogen bomb detonation has made North Korea so arrogant that it has been making extremely provocative and irresponsible threats against the US-the most recent one as reported by North Korea’s State news agency ( KCNA ) being :

“Scientists are in high spirit to detonate H-bombs of hundreds of kilotons and megatons, capable of wiping out the whole territory of the US all at once”.

The least, Beijing as the closest ally of Pyongyang should have done is to have pointed out the downright stupidity of such pronouncements to North Korea, which, unfortunately, has not happened.

There is considerable opposition within China from Asia-Pacific think tanks asking the regime for revisiting its pro-North Korea policy in favour of the re-unification of the two Koreas.

The political stability of China, as a nation lies on socio-economic fault lines –which do pose a domestic threat, as was witnessed during the Tiananmen Square revolt, but the political establishment has ever since, ruthlessly suppressed, not just that rebellion but all dissent. Resultantly, a challenge to its authority is just not possible.

North Korea adopts “blackmail diplomacy“ vis a vis the United States to secure aid by threatening to undertake nuclear tests and launch missiles…

North Korea’s dependence on China has historically been multi-dimensional. Such dimensions encompass, economic, cultural and geo-strategic ties. China contributed more than a million People’s Volunteers in the Korean War ( 1950-53 ) and saved the latter from being gobbled up by the US led United Nations forces. As the communist movement evolved with the ideological strains of Marxism-Leninism assuming country-specific formats- Pyongyang decided to follow an independent foreign policy and in 1975 even joined the non aligned movement (NAM China and North Korea signed the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation & Mutual Assistance in 1961.

Article 2 of this Treaty obligates China to defend North Korea against “unprovoked aggression” Juche,  or self reliance is supposedly the bedrock of its national policy though complete economic dependency on Beijing and dynastic scaffolding of the political structures coupled with unreasoned executions of the regime’s detractors are characteristic of the North Korean political establishment. For a long time Pyongyang was putting on the pretense of being equally close to Moscow and Beijing.

In 1965 the stand-off between the erstwhile Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China ( PRC ) forced North Korea into making its preference visibly clear. The then North Korean Supremo Kim II –Sung  (grandfather of the present North Korean Head of State ) decided to chart his political road on the path dictated by Moscow. This antagonized Beijing, resultantly it demanded of North Korea some re-adjustments of its border, more  specifically  Pyongyang was asked to concede the area of 160  kilometres around Peaktusan.  However, China’s terse demand was attempted to be rationalized through superficial diplomatic niceties. This was achieved by China telling North Korea that the concession demanded from it was a justifiable quid pro quo for the economic and military aid provided to it during the Korean War of the early Nineteen Fifties. China abandoned its claim in 1970 in order to improve relations with North Korea.

China, during the last ten years has developed very close commercial ties with South Korea (the bilateral trade between China and South Korea is about forty times higher than the China – North Korea trade in value ). Eventually Beijing favours a unified Korea. However, it is in no hurry for this…

Between March 1968 and March 1969-the area demanded by China witnessed sporadic skirmishes. The Cultural Revolution in China exacerbated the turbulence-the Red Guards openly spewed their venom against the then Korean regime. Beijing was so distraught with Pyongyang at that time that it sealed its border with the latter. China and North Korea share a 1416  kilometre border that corresponds broadly speaking to the course of Yalu and Tumen rivers. It is of interest to note that China has agreed to demarcate its borders coinciding with natural geographical relief with some nations it desires to keep under its influence such as Nepal and North Korea- a concession it does not extend to India ( it refuses to accept the McMahon Line as the border.

How US Responds to an Unreasonable North Korea :

The two tenets guiding the US policy towards North Korea are  “strategic patience and a suitable “Pivot to Asia “  The best example of strategic patience was the Obama administration’s refusal to continue to adhere to the policy of providing incentives to induce it to return to nuclear disarmament talks following the collapse of an attempted deal at the end of the Bush term. The fact that the US could not be browbeaten by the antics of North Korea – annoyed the latter, which in vengeance intensified its nuclear and missile test programme.

The Framework Agreement was flouted by Pyongyang:

This 1994 US-North Korean bilateral accord required North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for two proliferation resistance nuclear power reactors. But Pyongyang’s rogue regime after some token compliance reneged on the terms of the accord. Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from Non-Proliferation Treaty ( NPT ) in Jan 2003.

Hostilities between the two Koreas also increased by 2010- this concerned the US and forced it to structure its “ Pivot to Asia Pacific “ strategy ; this involved additional deployment of US military assets to vulnerable zones such as South Korea-which stance helped to assuage the potential victims of the likely threat from Pyongyang.

North Korea has virtually no resources of its own. This impoverished country is a detestable basket case. It adopts “ blackmail diplomacy “ vis a vis the United States to secure aid by threatening to undertake nuclear tests and launch missiles-whenever it is on the verge of starvation, or whenever, it sees the international community pre-occupied with concerns of other tension ridden places, as at present when the entire West Asia is gripped with military turmoil.

China will reconcile to a unified Korea only and only if it is convinced at a later date that its own sovereignty and strategic interests do not suffer as a result of such unification.

Besides refusing to condone its military misadventures and subscribing to United Nations Security Council’s sanctions and reprimands against North Korea, Beijing, has begun to give its so perceived ally, a short shrift. Recently, a premier all women North Korean pop group Moran Bong  was invited to perform in Beijing- on noticing that the content of the music to be presented was glorification of Kim Jong-Un ( the present North Korean Supremo ) besides extolling the virtues of the Korean bombs and missiles –the hosts asked the North Korean artists to return back forthwith i.e. the artists were not permitted to present their performance. Earlier in September China was  celebrating its anniversary for successful participation in World War II –the guest list for this solemn occasion covered several heads of State including Russia, Venezuela and Sudan, but Kim ( the Korean leader was not one of the invitees ) the Korean participation was at a lower level. Pakistan also sent a military contingent to participate in the parade.

China, during the last ten years has developed very close commercial ties with South Korea (the bilateral trade between China and South Korea is about forty times higher than the China-North Korea trade in value ). Eventually Beijing favours a unified Korea. However, it is in no hurry for this and most certainly not at the cost of a valuable buffer zone –which North Korea offers. China will reconcile to a unified Korea only and only if it is convinced at a later date that its own sovereignty and strategic interests do not suffer as a result of such unification.

After its fourth nuclear test, South Korea has decided to appeal to all UNSC members to impose harsher sanctions on North Korea.

China has endorsed UNSC Resolutions against Pyongyang:

China has already endorsed numerous UNSC  Resolutions  imposing sanctions on Pyongyang. After its fourth nuclear test, South Korea has decided to appeal to all UNSC members to impose harsher sanctions on North Korea. Shin Dong-ik South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister is very soon visiting New York to make out a very strong case for the same, as reported in the Korea Times of Jan 14, 2016

Despite all its political and economic proximity to Pyongyang (North Korea has more business and economic ties with China, than with any other nation), these ties are termed a “ strategic cooperative partnership” China will never be able to rein in a recklessly delinquent North Korea.


Source: Defence Review