North Korea has featured a lot recently in global media outlets. Their testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile on Friday prompted strong condemnation across the globe. I recently remarked how after every major terrorist attack there is a similar pattern of condemnation followed ultimately by a shrug of the shoulders.
In the past, that has often been the case with US approach to North Korea. Strongly worded messages delivered through the United Nations or even by the President themselves. Economic sanctions often followed. China typically have a more measured response and seek to mitigate the economic fallout. There was a comfortable familiarity to this process. A mini cold war where all sides knew when they could poke and prod and when to back down. However, this changed in 2011 when Kim Jong-un came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
News and reports from North Korea will always be hazy and unreliable but if even twenty percent of the reports are true then Kim Jong-un has little of the political nous of his father, a wily survivor who ruled for seventeen years. He does seem to have excelled in violence against potential rivals. The 2013 arrest and execution of his uncle-in-law by flamethrower was a grisly announcement to the world of his modus operandi. There have been reports of moves against him in recent times but as of today the latest view of most intelligence agencies is that Kim Jong-un is still the boss. His announcement after the missile test on Friday that North Korea can strike the US “at any place and any time” seems brash at best and suicidal at worst.
President Trump's tweet yesterday that China is doing nothing to curb North Korea will invariably draw focus on the Chinese-North Korean relationship and probably leading to a stinging rebuke from China.
Where do China stand here? This is arguably the most challenging aspect of this escalating crisis to speculate on. China is North Korea’s largest trade partner and accounts for approximately 90% of its exports. China has more leverage with North Korea than any other country. Across the globe, particularly in Africa, China has major trade links with a host of countries that have questionable foreign policies etc. China says little about their policies, builds their infrastructure and extracts their resources. However this is different, this is their neighbour openly telling the world's military superpower that they can hit them with a nuclear weapon at any time.
There are a few points to speculate on here. Firstly does China really have the influence to curtail the North Korea regime or is Kim Jong-un so unhinged and disconnected from reality that he doesn’t see the potential results of his words and actions. Secondly does China want this to stop immediately?
On the first point it is hard to believe that China does not have the necessary clout with numerous senior members of the regime. There is a Chinese economic zone just inside North Korea where China uses cheap North Korean labour to import coal and other basic goods. This a valuable source of foreign currency for North Korea. Furthermore many members of both regimes clandestinely benefit from this arrangement financially.
In many ways it is in China’s interest to keep maintain the status quo. I believe they may even have secretly given the North Koreans covert approval to test the foreign policy resolve of Donald Trump. The timing couldn’t be more opportune. Trump is struggling to generate any momentum with his domestic policies and is currently under investigation for illicit ties with Russia. China may want to gain some further leverage with the US and seek some guarantees on the South Pacific and/or trade before reining in the North Koreans. If this is the case they are playing a very dangerous game. Kim Jong-un is a very unpredictable and dangerous character. The more slack he is given now, the more challenging it will eventually be to rein in.
So if this failed to work and things escalate any further we could be facing a very serious situation. The last thing China wants or could tolerate is US airstrikes in North Korea. However before anyone suggest I am predicting WW3, I see another scenario playing out.
With these trade links there must be numerous channels of communication between the Chinese and senior North Korean officials without the knowledge of Kim Jong-un. If things get much more serious I can envisage a Chinese-led coup displacing the Korean leader with a military council who are willing to tone down the missile tests while continuing to publicly condemn the US.
The US will not want this situation to escalate and Trump has so many matters on his mind I believe he will pay a lot for a deal, despite his numerous boasts about his negotiating power. While I believe claims of the US decline are overblown, at this moment the US is a state of limited turmoil and Trump strikes me as a very exacerbated character who can’t comprehend how he is suffering so many setbacks domestically.
Finally I want to mention that if this is the case this is a very, very dangerous game to play. Recent history is littered with examples of major powers initially using regimes for their own aims only to ultimately suffer in the fallout. The US arming the taliban springs to mind. The Chinese obviously believe that they can both rein in North Korean nuclear tests when they want and that that the US will get involved militarily. However if they have miscalculated either factor we could be in a for a very tense and potentially dangerous few years...