Can Xi defang Kim Jong-un?
by R Hariharan on 29 Oct 2017 3 Comments

On September 3, 2017, when President Xi Jinping was holding a reception for dignitaries attending the ninth BRICS summit meeting in Xiamen, he got a rude shock. North Korea (Democratic Republic of Korea –DPRK), under the leadership of the irascible Kim Jong-un, carried out its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of China’s strong opposition. This was not the first time it had happened; China had strongly opposed North Korea’s nuclear testing ever since it started it in 2006. But after Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development projects have made giant strides to enable him to test both nuclear devices and inter-continental ballistic missiles. 


China’s prompt response to North Korea’s nuclear tests since 2006 feature two operative phrases - “firm opposition” to North Korea’s conduct which was “flagrant and brazen violation of international opinion”.  That may not be sufficient any more as China under President Xi aspires to become a super power in the emerging international security environment. The rapid progress in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities is a testimony to the dynamics of change.


Though President Xi did not immediately respond to the September 3 blast, he was probably not amused.


Change in stance


After meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Beijing, Xi said that China was committed to the goal of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. The statement is significant as it shows China’s recognition of the need for international collective action to stop North Korea’s nuclear capability. So it was not surprising China did not oppose to important sections of the operative paragraphs of the US draft resolution brought before the UN Security Council passed in the wake of September 3 test.


This is a change from China’s stand when UNSC sanctions and resolutions on North Korea were passed in 2006 and 2013. The reasons for China’s opposition to North Korea acquiring nuclear capability are strategic. North Korea acts as the strategic vanguard to China not only in North Asia, but also the “China Seas” region, where the US flexes its military muscle regularly. Nuclearisation of North Korea would give the US an opportunity to introduce nuclear capable weapons in South Korea, its strategic partner.


This could thwart China’s desire to neutralize the US domination of the region. Already, North Korea’s repeated missile testing has enabled the US to introduce the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile) anti-missile system in South Korea. To a certain extent, it cramps China’s missile operational capability. So China cannot afford to provide the US and its allies further opportunity to enlarge their capability. 


The North Korean nuclear test was undoubtedly a loss of face for China and President Xi. The BRICS summit was part of his slew of global initiatives to create a new world order as an alternative to the present US and Western domination of the world. President Xi also hopes to use the Shanghai-based Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and his One Belt One Road to increase China’s strategic reach and influence across Asia, Africa and Europe. Peaceful development is central to Xi’s marketing pitch for all these international initiatives.


After President Donald Trump chose to renege on many US international initiatives already undertaken, including the UN Paris agreement on Climate Change, UNESCO, the Trans Pacific Pact (TPP) and probably WTO as well, President Xi shown his readiness to take on the leadership role. For the success of these strategic initiatives, China requires a peaceful environment, which could be jeopardized by Kim Jong-un’s belligerence.


Consolidating power


Internally also, the North Korean nuclear test comes at an inconvenient time for Xi. He had been working hard for the last four years to consolidate power within the ruling hierarchy of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the government and the PLA. His sustained anti-corruption drive has enabled him to carry out a “house cleaning” drive to weed out potential contenders to power from the CPC and the PLA. 


Media reports indicate that the 19th Congress of the CPC is also likely to anoint Xi as a mentor in the CPC constitution, a rare honour bestowed so far only to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Speculation is also rife that the Congress might nominate him as Chairman of the CPC for life, the first step to become a lifetime President. Under these circumstances, he cannot afford to be seen as a weak and ineffective leader who cannot rein in North Korea’s brazen conduct. 


Ever since the North Korean strongman Kim Jong succeeded his father Kim Jong Il in 2011 as supreme leader, he has relentlessly pursued his ambition to acquire indigenous nuclear and missile capability. After the sixth nuclear test, North Korea seems to have developed the capability to produce hydrogen bombs. North Korea has steadily upgraded its missile capability; this year alone it carried out 17 missile tests of varying ranges and capabilities. Two of the missiles have been fired over Japan. At least two of the missiles tested can be classified as inter-continental missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. This would indicate that North Korea is well on the way to achieve its over-ambitious goal of developing a missile capable of hitting the US.


Rash comments


Donald Trump, perhaps the most unpredictable US President-ever, and his DPRK counterpart have been bad-mouthing each other and exchanging insults over social media. It was set off after Trump, in his inimitable style of making rash statements, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, while addressing the UN General Assembly last month. Kim, equally ebullient in motor-mouthing, took the name-calling to a new low, calling Trump “a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire, rather than a politician”. Kim concluded his statement with a promise to “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire” and finally calling Trump “an old person, especially one who has become weak or senile.”


Though Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov likened the slanging match between the two leaders to kindergarten fighting, the dangers of an unprecedented war exploding in and around the Korean peninsula are more real now than ever before.


In a statement on October 7, Kim Jong-un said nuclear weapons were “powerful deterrent firmly safeguarding the peace and security in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia in the face of protracted nuclear threats of the US imperialists”. This is indicative of his insecure and paranoid mindset. Given this background, North Korea’s repeated threats to strike US bases in Guam and recent warnings to South Korea and Australia for participating in military drills organized by the US cannot be taken lightly.


So it is not surprising that not only South Korea, Japan and China, but countries in the neighbourhood such as Australia are worried of an outbreak of war in case Kim’s goes berserk. The North Korean nuke test represents a watershed moment in China’s relations with its Korean ally, a relationship that has been cultivated during the last five decades. In the heydays of their relationship, Mao Zedong described it as “close as the lip and teeth.” 


Old ties


The relationship cemented by the sacrifice of 180,000 Chinese lives, who fought to save North Korea from being overrun by US and UN troops during the Korean War in the past, had suffered periodic hiccups due to differences on ideological, political and trade issues. In the 1960s, Mao’s Cultural Revolution caused serious ripples in the relations as Kim Il-sung considered it an incorrect implementation of the principles of Marxism-Leninism. 


The drift in China-North Korea relations started when Deng Xiaoping advocated political and economic pragmatism and opened China to the world. The Kim dynasty did not take to it lightly; it has continued to rule North Korea with an iron fist, though there were brief periods of honeymoon in relations with China.


After Kim came to power, he ordered the execution of his uncle Chang Song-thek, considered close to China, for plotting a coup. Similarly, Kim is believed to be behind the murder of his brother Kim Jong-nam, who was living in exile in Macau under Chinese protection. These instances indicate Kim’s paranoia about China attempting a regime change. But China may not want to do that as it could trigger an era of instability in a country geographically too close for China’s comfort. 


It seems there is no other option for both the US and China but to set aside their strategic differences and come together to defang North Korea. Is it possible? How will they do it without triggering a war? This is perhaps a million dollar question for security pundits.


The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, and is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and International Law and Strategic Studies Institute

Courtesy: India Legal, 30 October 2017

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