North Korea’s recent testing of its third atomic device has created alarm among its neighbors South Korea and Japan. It has also brought about the condemnation of the UN Security Council and the demand for further tightening of already tight sanctions against the North Korean regime.
Pyongyang’s closest friend and neighbor, China, is also unhappy with its ally, but Beijing is not a great supporter of sanctions, instead favoring talks in the now moribund six-party forum (comprised of North Korea, South Korea, Japan, the US, China and Russia) that it had initiated.
However, nothing much came out of the talks, though they seemed hopeful at the time — even China has little leverage with Pyongyang on the issue of nuclear weapons.
Beijing might be able to bring down the regime gradually if it cut off the essential economic lifeline it provides to North Korea, but the outcome of this may not be what China wants.
Beijing does not want the collapse of the North Korean regime to trigger a flood of refugees into China. It also does not want internal instability in North Korea to upset the regional balance and tilt it in the favor of the US, Japan and South Korea.
Japan and South Korea are US allies, and both are extremely worried about the nuclear threat from Pyongyang.
Much of the world regards North Korea as a crazy country that values its nuclear toys more than its people, many of whom suffer from malnutrition and hunger. The North lives in a world of its own with a strongly propagated personality cult surrounding the patriarch and founder of the communist state, Kim Il-sung, and his successors, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and present leader Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang fears that Washington and its allies are engaged in a conspiracy to destroy it and to ward it off, which is why it feels it needs to wield a strong nuclear deterrent that can reach as far as the US.
The US was warned that it was not beyond the reach of North Korean weaponry and that Pyongyang would continue to conduct tests and develop technologies for that purpose. This was made clear in a statement from the official Korean Central News Agency which seemed to applaud “the nuclear test that was carried out at a high level in a safe and perfect manner using a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive power than previously...” The message is clear: Pyongyang has mastered the technology of smaller and lighter atomic weapons that can be mounted on missiles to reach far-away targets.
Pyongyang acquiring the capability to miniaturize atomic devices makes it a formidable enemy and, unsurprisingly, this is causing concern among its neighbors, as well as in other countries. Pyongyang raising its nuclear bar, prompting South Korea and Japan to announce defensive counter-measures, has made the region highly combustible. None of the regional countries want a war — especially one involving nuclear weapons — but the emerging climate of brinkmanship has the potential to set one off through miscalculation or accident, as happened with World War I.
Take a statement reportedly made by the chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff pledging to pre-emptively strike against North Korea if it showed any intent of using nuclear weapons “even at the risk of war.” If a conflict were to break out so close to the Chinese border, it would risk evolving into a larger conflagration involving China and even the US. Japan is also strengthening its defensive capabilities to meet a potential nuclear threat from North Korea.
It is important to remember that the commotion ensuing from Pyongyang’s nuclear test is happening in the midst of an ongoing sovereignty dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over a group of islands in the East China Sea. The islands are also claimed by Taiwan, where they are known as the Diaoyutais (釣魚台), while Japan calls them the Senkakus.
China is also embroiled in another sovereignty dispute with several Southeast Asian countries over territories in the South China Sea. Against this smoldering backdrop, Beijing might be more inclined to strengthen its strategic connection with North Korea, notwithstanding its opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
China is clearly annoyed with Pyongyang’s dangerous behavior and for taking Beijing’s allegiance for granted, but its options seem limited.
The US and allies opposed to North Korea’s nuclear development hope that one day Pyongyang will wear out its welcome through its untrustworthiness and Beijing will expel the nation from its economic and strategic shield.
However, this is unlikely so long as the strategic competition and hostility between the US and China are working against accommodation on the North Korea issue. Sanctions against North Korea remain the only real option, but they have not worked so far and are unlikely to work without Chinese backing.
This will lead North Korea’s neighbors — in particular Japan and South Korea — to further beef up their military defences and even consider a pre-emptive strike. This has the potential of sparking a conflict that would draw in China and the US, a prospect which is alarming.
Chinese leaders must reflect on the situation and be concerned about having an unstable nuclear neighbor operating outside their control. On the Korean Peninsula, it is Pyongyang that seems to drive Chinese policy. Worse still, if it is pressured too much by China to abandon its nuclear weapons program, North Korea might turn its (nuclear) gun on China. Hopefully, Pyongyang is not this suicidal.
However, the North is determined to maintain its nuclear profile as its only leverage and deterrant against what it perceives as a hostile world. Beijing may have to live with its unruly ally, hoping that a resumption of talks in the six-party forum could lead to a breakthrough — this is the path that China has pursued and is likely to continue.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.