North Korea’s blast: China Holds the Cards
In an effort to devise more severe penalties for North Korea’s nuclear test, the US, Japan and South Korea were scrambling today to detect details of the explosion, particularly whether plutonium or uranium was used. But the keys to slapping down Pyongyang’s belligerence lie in Beijing, where a new and more nationalist leader, Xi Jinping, assumes power next month.
His influence is already visible in the Chinese response to the rogue regime’s goad, which outraged most world leaders. Beijing called on everyone, including Washington, to respond in a “cool headed manner”. It said the Chinese government is “firmly opposed to this act” but did not declare strong condemnation.
For their part, the US, Europe, Japan and the UN Security Council severely berated Pyongyang and threatened still greater punishment through such means as blocking banking services and stifling trade. To North Korea’s secluded and elderly leaders, the threats sound hollow because much of the information required to design and enforce non-military actions is held in China, which is its only economic partner.
Given this chasm in perceptions, it may be better to show some more carrots so that North Korea’s elders are pushed aside and the new generation successfully conducts a quiet coup d’état within the palace walls. That is probably the only possibility of change.
A popular rebellion against the elders is most unlikely because the people are thoroughly oppressed and subservient. They will sink under the pain of more sanctions rather than rising up in anger. The elders thrive on inciting fear of the US. Building expensive nuclear bombs and missiles to feed that fear allows them to retain power and wealth, while everyone else suffers. Washington’s threats boost their influence, when shorn of carrots. However, their younger competitors within the palace walls may succeed in dethroning them, to profit from more carrots.
Beyond punishment, the critical issue is whether uranium technology was used because that makes it easier and cheaper to build nuclear weapons. Above all, it allows the development of a nuclear warhead small enough to be placed on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US.
Worse, it might boost cooperation between North Korea and Iran to help Teheran to build a usable nuclear weapon, since Iranian scientists are also working with uranium. Israel will have a lot to say about that because Pyongyang is already suspected of supplying missile technology to Iran and helping Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons, with quiet help from China’s military.
Xi’s inauguration in Beijing could make Pyongyang a little cockier. He is a friend of the powerful Chinese military and a pillar of the ruling Communist Party. He is unlikely to bring the hammer down although the test caused anger since it ignored earlier Chinese entreaties not to take “provocative actions” against the US.
To a large extent, the Beijing government does not manage the relationship with Pyongyang. It is a father to son relationship between the Chinese Communist Party’s ideologues and their North Korean protégé. A father gets annoyed at a wanton son but always gives him another chance. That is parental duty in the orient.
For the communist party and China’s military, ties with North Korea are unbreakable because Beijing was an ally of Pyongyang in the Korean War, which ended with a ceasefire in 1953. A treaty never replaced the ceasefire and old-timers in Pyongyang believe the US is continuing that unresolved war by other means, to dismantle their power and their State.
Pyongyang’s elders do not recognize South Korea’s legality, although it is a UN member, because the US signed the ceasefire with North Korea and China. South Korea did not sign it. For them, a 4-kilometer demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel divides their country and they hope to erase it one day.
Old-timers of China’s army may have similar beliefs. Otherwise, they would have to recognize that the US defeated them in 1953 and forced withdrawal and ceasefire upon them. They want to avoid the public ignominy of having failed an ally.
Yet, Xi would prefer to placate Washington, at least at the start until he settles in, because he firmly believes in economic growth and innovation as the high roads to national power. He may try to put pressure on the ageing diehards in Pyongyang but may not have much room for maneuver because they will not suffer from sanctions and need not fear overthrow through internal rebellion.
Beijing has long cooperated with Washington to keep Pyongyang’s brashness in check. But its basic belief is that Washington’s sanctions and threats over decades have made the diehards determined to acquire the capacity to land nuclear tipped missiles within the US, even if that’s means starving the people.
Washington emphasizes principles such as nuclear non-proliferation while Beijing evaluates pragmatic self-interest, which lies partly in keeping North Korea alive as a loose cannon threatening vital US allies, including South Korea and Japan. Its goal is to weaken the US over the long term by forcing it to spend disproportionately large resources in the Far East to honor its military alliances.
However, Xi may prefer to bring stability to the region by defanging North Korea without appearing to admit Washington’s ideas. It may be worthwhile for the White House to listen more closely to Beijing and consider a more oriental approach to this very treacherous problem. China and Korea are ancient friends/enemies. They probably know more about local behavior and conciliation than Washington think tanks.