In an article titled North Korean Nukes, South Korea, Japan, China and Obama, posted the day after North Korea’s most recent nuke test, September 9th, I contended that China would not honor Obama’s request to make North Korea stop developing and testing nukes. China has remained a faithful ally of North Korea since the end stage of the Korean Conflict and “sees Obama, not as the representative of the world’s greatest power, but as a joke. He has no clout internationally and is a national embarrassment.” NB: I had hoped to publish this article more than a week ago, but my internet was down or at best intermittent from September 13th until September 19th.)
I was right, but it’s a bit worse than I had thought.
On September 12th, an article was published by Xinhua titled China urges U.S. to take responsibility on Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. Xinhua is
the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China. Xinhua is the biggest and most influential media organization in China. Xinhua is a ministry-level institution subordinate to the Chinese central government. Its president is a member of theCentral Committee of China’s Communist Party.
According to Xinhua,
U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter reportedly called for further pressure on the DPRK last Friday after the country carried out a new nuclear test and said China bears “responsibility” for tackling the problem. [Emphasis added.]
The essence of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is the conflict between the DPRK and the United States, spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a press conference. [Emphasis added.]
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a close neighbor of the DPRK, China has made unremitting efforts to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and safeguard the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, Hua said.
A statement released by the Foreign Ministry of the DPRK Sunday said the United States compelled the DPRK to develop nuclear warheads, and the nuclear threat it has constantly posed to the DPRK for decades is the engine that has pushed the DPRK to this point. [Emphasis added.]
Blindly increasing the pressure and the resulting bounce-back will only make the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula “a firm knot,” Hua said, calling for responsibility from all relevant parties.
Hua reiterated that China will remain committed to resolving issues concerning the Peninsula through dialogue to realize long-term peace and stability.
China strongly urges all parties to speak and act cautiously with the larger picture in mind, avoid provoking each other and make genuine efforts to achieve denuclearization, peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, Hua said.
. . . .
“We have seen the twists and turns in the situation on the Korean Peninsula since the six-party talks have stalled,” Hua said, noting that it proves that simple sanctions cannot solve the issue. [Emphasis added.]
Hua said the security concerns of parties on the Korean Peninsula must and can only be resolved in a way that serves the interests of all parties.
Any unilateral action based on one’s self-interest will lead to a dead end, and it will not help resolve one’s security concerns but will only aggravate the tension, complicate the issue, and make it more difficult to achieve relevant goals, Hua said. [Emphasis added.]
The six-party talks, involving China, the DPRK, the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Russia and Japan, were a multilateral mechanism aimed at solving the Korean Peninusla nuclear issue. The talks began in 2003 and stalled in December 2008. The DPRK quit the talks in April 2009.
“Resuming the six-party talks is difficult, but we cannot give up easily ,” Hua said.
China will continue to keep close communication with relevant parties and call on them to return to the right track of solving issues related to the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and negotiation, the spokesperson said.
China clearly appears to be following the line of Kim Jong-un on why North Korea needs nukes:
The Obama administration cannot engage in successful negotiations with North Korea, for several reasons. They are, in no particular order: Obama will be gone in about four months; Kerry is Obama’s Secretary of State; The Obama-Clinton-Kerry Iran Scam gave the Islamic Republic everything it sought and, at best, left Iran on the highway to nukes. North Korea and Iran are different in at least one major respect: Iran claimed that it did not have nukes and had not tried to develop them; Supreme Leader Khamenei was claimed to have issued a fatwa against the acquisition, development and use of nukes — despite propaganda videos showing how Iran will use nukes against the “great and little Satan.” North Korea has and has tested five nukes. Kim brags about them and threatens to use them.
The nuke threat
38 North is a think tank largely devoted to obtaining and publishing reliable information about North Korea’s nuke and missile programs. An article there by Siegfried S. Hecker, published on September 12th, concludes:
What are the greatest threats from the rapidly expanding North Korean nuclear program? Left unchecked, Pyongyang will likely develop the capability to reach the continental United States with a nuclear tipped missile in a decade or so. Much more troubling for now is that its recent nuclear and missile successes may give Pyongyang a false sense of confidence and dramatically change regional security dynamics. The likely ability of the DPRK to put nuclear weapons on target anywhere in South Korea and Japan and even on some US assets in the Pacific greatly complicates the regional military picture. That situation would be exacerbated if Pyongyang decides to field tactical nuclear weapons as its arsenal expands and its confidence in its nuclear arsenal grows.
More bombs and better bombs also increase the potential of accidents and miscalculations with greater consequences as the number and sophistication of bombs increase. Rendering the nuclear enterprise safe and secure in case of internal turmoil or a chaotic transition in the North becomes more difficult. We also cannot rule out that a financially desperate leadership may risk the sale of fissile materials or other nuclear assets, perhaps to non-state actors. [Emphasis added.]
So, what to do? The latest nuclear test demonstrates conclusively that attempting to sanction the DPRK into submission and waiting for China to exert leverage over Pyongyang’s nuclear program do not work. Increasing sanctions and adding missile defenses in South Korea to that mix will also not suffice and make China even less likely to cooperate. What’s missing is diplomacy as much as Washington may find it repugnant to deal with the Kim regime.
On September 20th, North Korea announced that it had tested a new long-range rocket engine, suggesting that it “can be used for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which is capable, in theory, of hitting targets on the U.S. mainland.” The September 9th nuke test is claimed to have involved “a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a ballistic missile.” How close in North Korea to being able to nuke the U.S. mainland? I don’t know and don’t want to find out by having it happen.
Can diplomacy, even if undertaken by a new administration after Obama leaves office, be successful? Continued sanctions got Iran to engage in negotiations; both Iran and Obama’s America very much wanted the sanctions lifted so that Iran would become an honorable member of the community of nations. There are few if any significant sanctions to lift on North Korea and China will not impose or enforce any; China’s role has been to help North Korea evade sanctions.
In China Won’t Stop Kim Jong-un. The U.S. Must Stand Up to Both of Them, published by Slate Magazine on September 13, Fred Kaplan had some perhaps useful suggestions:
[T]he United States should rally the same sort of campaign that revved up the pressure against Iran before those nuclear talks got underway. In other words, the international community should apply sanctions not only against North Korea but also against all institutions that do business with North Korea—an action that would affect some major Chinese banks, which provide it with energy supplies, other goods, and hard currency. [Emphasis added.]
Yes, this would stir tensions in U.S.-China relations; but so do a lot of other actions, many of them instigated by China (for instance, the dodgy territorial claims in the South China Sea), and in this case, any perceptions of American aggression would be offset, to some degree, by a realization—at least by some Chinese officials—that it’s time for Beijing to face up to its problem and reassess its strategic priorities accordingly. (Longtime China-watchers say that some of Xi’s senior comrades have been advocating tougher action against Kim.)
He also suggests that if an end is put to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and work, America should agree to terminate its no longer necessary THAAD deployments in South Korea and Japan. Further, the next president
should take steps, especially with China, to prevent Pyongyang from deploying a nuclear missile; but if that proves fruitless, he or she should make very clear that North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons—or even a conventional invasion of South Korea (which might be accompanied by a brandishing of nukes to deter anyone from coming to Seoul’s aid)—will be regarded as an attack on the United States and will be dealt with accordingly. There should be no ambiguity about this. Kim Jong-un may be crazy, but his eccentricities have always been in the service of his survival—and he should understand that he’s putting his survival on the line. Daniel Sneider, associate director of Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, thinks we should deploy more nuclear-capable aircraft on U.S. bases in Asia to drive this point home fiercely.
It seems worth noting that among the reasons to expect that a Russian-assisted attack on South Korea would be successful, which Kim Il-sung suggested to Stalin in 1950, was that Secretary of State Dean Atcheson had delivered an important address in which he listed the nations to the defense of which America would come if attacked. South Korea was not on the list. As I observed here in November of 2010,
When Kim il-Sung secretly visited Moscow between March 30 and April 25, he assured Stalin that his attack would succeed in three days: there would be an uprising by some two hundred thousand party members and he was convinced that the United States would not intervene. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s January 12, 1950 speech was persuasive evidence. There, Secretary Acheson had omitted South Korea from a list of nations which the United States would defend if attacked. Stalin gave the go-ahead.
China has encouraged North Korean nuclearization and wants America and her allies, principally South Korea, to cease their “provocations” against the Kim regime. Yet Kim thrives on, and encourages his supporters by, engaging in provocations far more serious and dramatic than anything thus far done by America and South Korea. It seems likely that the North Korean nuke – missile problem will continue until Kim is (a) taken out and (b) replaced with someone less narcissistic and more interested in feeding his people than his ego. Whether such a replacement will emerge is unknown. However, if a Kim clone emerges instead, he seems likely to be more concerned than Kim about his prospects for a long and happy life, even with protection from China.