The “crisis” on the 38th parallel has little to do with the two Koreas: It is about oil and gas for China, the prelude to an energy grab that will safeguard the expansion of the Chinese economy for decades to come. Six months ago, Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard cutters were drenching each other in spray from water cannon, in footage now forgotten. The present pantomime, with hisses greeting North Korea as the villain, is not a replacement of the fountain show, but its encore.
The Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — the Senkaku Islands if you are Japanese, or the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島) if you are Chinese — halfway between the two countries, and the fossil resources that underlie them, are the issue of contention, not the integrity of the Korean border. In the twilight of oil, long-term energy security is at the top of all great powers’ agendas, but it has a highly personal dimension for those in power in China today.
In the US, US$200 for a barrel of oil and 15 percent unemployment will lose a presidential election. In China, it could lose you your life, or at least all its luxurious trappings. Continued growth and rising standards of living — with the oil to guarantee it — are vital to protect the positions of the unpopular hereditary elite who run the country.
To have their subjects acquiesce, the princelings need to keep the economy booming and the good times rolling, not just for China’s nouveau riche, but for the emergent middle classes and the migrant factory workers who are bottom of the heap.
The notion of North Korea having any autonomy in its external dealings and, as a prodigal son, somehow going further than China would want is more than ridiculous. The reprimands and tut-tuttings from China go further than that — they are a preposterous farce. North Korea is China’s attack dog. The leash is the weapons, the food and the fuel that go over the border. China has had absolute control over the North since the day its troops turned the tide of war by launching infantry attacks against UN forces in November 1950.
China has the capacity to install whoever it wishes in Pyongyang. The savage attack dog of the North has very large fangs: its million-plus land army. It can bark, show its teeth, even snap at the heels of its owner, but both know who is master. North Korea is not even a client regime of Beijing, but a special autonomous region, with nuclear weapons and concentration camps rather than skyscrapers and the rule of law.
The problem is not with the leadership in the North — ultimately rational, prioritizing self-preservation and aggrandizement — but with the minions in a military that is now factionalized as never before.
Brainwashing is a word that dates from the Korean War. The population of the North is not just docile, but stupefied with terror.
The crew of a North Korean submarine that ran aground in southern waters in 1996 executed 11 of its own members for incompetence before making a run for the demilitarized zone, but only two survived. It is perfectly possible for someone so lobotomized by the cult of personality to push a button that was never meant to be pushed.
North Korea naturally has some kind of agenda independent of China. Ratcheting up a situation such as today’s consolidates the hold over the army of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Like the frog that puffed itself up, it also makes him look larger on the world stage.