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China and US Have Different Priorities

Why North Korea won’t give up its nukes

North Korea had sound reasons to want nuclear weapons, and it will retain and test them despite US and (half-hearted) Chinese sanctions.

by Philippe Pons

Le Monde diplomatique (May 2017)

There has been an increase in tension in the Korean peninsula, following the North Korean regime’s lavish military parade last month to mark the birthday of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung (1912~1994) and the anniversary of the foundation of its army, which coincided with the US’s announcement that it had sent an “armada” to the Sea of Japan (known as the East Sea in Korea). This US show of strength was a bluff: the aircraft carrier and its escort were in fact on their way to the Indian Ocean. The war of words and threats from Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, both declaring they are ready for a fight, has further raised the diplomatic temperature.

These flare-ups have been recurrent since the war between the North and South (1950~1953) was suspended: the armistice never led to a peace treaty. Nor are threats of US military intervention new: they were made in 1969 when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK”) shot down a US spy plane over its territory, but President Nixon concluded the risk of taking action was too high. In 1994 the option was put back on the table when North Korea first produced plutonium. The Clinton administration was ready to make a preventative strike and conflict was narrowly avoided by former US president Jimmy Carter’s surprise visit to Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang.

Trump’s keenness to end the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” (diplomatic stasis combined with sanctions), which did not halt North Korea’s nuclear and ballistics progress, risks leading him into errors of judgment. All the more so since he seems not to understand the complexity of the North Korean situation, and even the most elementary historical facts. Contrary to his claim, it has never been “part of China” {1}. There is also the radicalism of some of his security advisers. The threat or use of force alone will not solve the problem. Since its foundation in 1948, the DPRK has stood up to the great powers: not just the US, but also its former mentors, China and the Soviet Union. Today it is showing the same fierce independence in defying both the US and China.

The US attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have strengthened North Koreans’ conviction that only with nuclear weapons can they avoid a similar fate

Beyond the personalisation of the crisis, which reduces it to a stand-off between impulsive leaders, the current tensions reveal the impasse resulting from more than 25 years of a US policy focused on non-proliferation and ignoring what motivated North Korea’s leaders to acquire nuclear weapons.

The North Koreans concluded that they could only rely on their own forces, and so in the late 1980s they initiated a civil nuclear programme with Soviet help, which they later secretly redirected towards military use. The collapse of the Soviet Union and changes in China made the DPRK feel more vulnerable, and encouraged it to pursue the programme, with cooperation notably from Pakistan. The US attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have strengthened North Koreans’ conviction that only with nuclear weapons can they avoid a similar fate.

Defunct Agreement

In the 1990s, North Korea might have been persuaded to give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for security guarantees and economic aid. That was the aim of a 1994 framework agreement, which envisaged plutonium production being frozen in return for normalising relations with the US, lifting sanctions and equipping two light-water nuclear plants, which pose less risk of proliferation. The US failed to respect its undertakings, and North Korea soon did likewise. It tried to acquire the means to enrich uranium, while simultaneously observing the moratorium on the plutonium programme under International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) surveillance.

In 2002 George W Bush declared the 1994 agreement defunct on the pretext that the uranium enrichment programme had allegedly entered its operational phase. This was untrue, as US intelligence sources were forced to admit in March 2007 {2}, reminiscent of the intelligence services’ manipulation of information to justify the invasion of Iraq. So this second North Korean nuclear crisis originated in a US lie, in the hope of bringing the regime down through confrontation. The strategy backfired: released from the 1994 agreement, and despite international sanctions, North Korea conducted its first atomic test in 2006.

The situation today is different. The possession of dissuasive force has become an intrinsic part of North Korea and is written into its fundamental law. Even if uncertainties remain over its ability to miniaturise nuclear warheads and its progress in ballistics, a nuclear North Korea is a reality. In October 2016 former director of US intelligence James Clapper admitted that getting North Korea to give up its deterrent was “probably a lost cause” (AFP, 26 October 2016).

US policy is obsessed with non-proliferation, and it is deluding itself with the idea that the regime will collapse. This thought, though contradicted by the facts for twenty years, is the basis of a short-term strategy that flips between dialogue and confrontation. North Korea meanwhile takes the long-term view.

A Strategic Necessity

It has conducted five nuclear tests and a sixth seems likely. Since the second, Bush-created crisis, North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programmes have ceased to be a bargaining chip, if they ever were: they are a strategic necessity. Giving up its weapons would be suicide for the regime: it would no longer be able to justify the suffering imposed on its people to prioritise national defence over their wellbeing, and more important, like Iraq, it would soon become vulnerable to outside attack.

Given that US policy has failed and the North Korean regime needs to retain a deterrent, what are the positions of the regional protagonists, the two Koreas and China?

The North Korean regime, though always described as irrational and unpredictable, has stuck to a consistent policy line. It wants to be recognised as an independent power with nuclear arms; to obtain security guarantees, opening the road to international recognition; and to pursue economic recovery, initiated through the reforms of the past ten years and especially since Kim Jong-un’s accession {3}. These have made possible a hybrid economy, combining central planning and private initiative. Proof can be seen in the transformation of Pyongyang, with skyscrapers, new avenues, shopping centres, restaurants and theme parks {4}. There has been visible, though less spectacular, improvement elsewhere, though hardship persists.

This economic improvement is vital to the regime’s stability. Kim Jong-un has brutally eliminated all possible internal opposition, and has a tight grip on the country. Tensions and conflict serve his purpose: the people, who have a visceral sense of patriotism, common to all Koreans but more extreme in the North, are led to believe they are under permanent siege. The threats of preventative bombing only sharpen insecurity.

Another constant is the assertion of national independence, a way of rejecting Korea’s age-old dependence on China. It is easy, and not completely wrong, to blame China (as the US has done) for the failure of the sanctions policy against the DPRK. Though China votes for sanctions in the Security Council, it applies them half-heartedly.

With China, It’s Just Self-Interest

However, though ties with China used to be characterised as “fraternal relations”, they have never been unconditionally cordial. The generation of companions in arms who fought in the guerrilla war against the Japanese occupiers and then in the Korean war is gone. Even then, animosities infected the supposed friendship. Now relations are based on self-interest, which can be seen from the normalisation of relations between China and South Korea, which began in 1992, much to the North’s displeasure.

China, by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner, has ways of exerting pressure but its priorities are different from those of the US. Pyongyang knows how to exploit this: China’s leaders are not keen on a nuclear Korea, but are even less keen to back it into a corner. The regime’s collapse would bring a civil war on their doorstep; a flood of refugees that could destabilise the frontier province of Yanbian, which has a sizeable Korean minority; and worst of all, possible reunification with the South, which would mean the presence on its border of a US ally, and perhaps even US troops. China lost a million men in 1950 repelling Allied forces from the Yalu River (Amnok in Korean). It is unlikely that it would be any more tolerant of such a scenario today.

China has nothing to gain from regional instability and President Xi Jinping is consequently taking a tougher line with North Korea: he suspended coal imports in April (though two-way trade in other commodities is growing). Some Chinese intellectuals criticise any leniency towards North Korea; among them is the historian of the Korean war, Shen Zhihua of East China Normal University in Shanghai, who said in March that North Korea was now “a destabilising factor on China’s border”, endangering China’s “fundamental national interests”. This is an influential opinion, and a sign that the Korean question is a rare subject of debate authorised by the authorities. Will such criticisms have an impact on party leaders and the military hierarchy? North Korea responded to the slight toughening of Chinese sanctions with verbal abuse unheard since the Cultural Revolution, new missile launches and a refusal to receive Chinese representatives. More bravado?

For now, China’s policy remains unchanged: the US and North Korea must negotiate. The US wants to make North Korea comply through force; China wants to make it develop economically by integrating it in regional development and progressively reducing the risk of destabilisation it represents. This assumes the nuclear question will not be made a priority, and will fall within the negotiating framework, whereas the US demands that North Korea give up nuclear weapons as a precondition to any negotiation.

A further unknown is South Korea’s stance after the presidential election on 9 May. The hard line taken by impeached president Park Geun-hye will not be pursued by the opposition candidate likeliest to succeed her, Moon Jae-in, who supports dialogue with the North and renegotiating South Korea’s THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) agreement with the US, which China hates. Until the election, the political vacuum at the top means no initiative from South Korea. But after it, the US risks being out of step with its ally. The false information about the US fleet, which angered public opinion in the South, will not have helped.

Any policy intended to calm tensions needs to take into account that North Korea’s leaders are not irrational, but are ready to take risks; the regime is not collapsing; and it will not give up its nuclear weapons. Another factor the US must bear in mind is that any attack would be met with a response from Pyongyang. Seoul is fifty kilometers from North Korea’s artillery batteries, and US military bases in Okinawa are within range of its missiles. The room for manoeuvre is narrow and the stakes are high.

_____

Philippe Pons is a journalist and the author of Coree du Nord: un Etat-guerilla en mutation (North Korea: a changing guerrilla state), Gallimard, Paris, 2016.

Notes:

{1} Interview with The Wall Street Journal, New York, 4 April 2017.

{2} Testimony given by intelligence official Joseph De Trani to Congress, Le Monde, Paris, 19 July 2007.

{3} https://mondediplo.com/2014/02/04northkorea

{4} https://mondediplo.com/2015/08/05northkorea

https://mondediplo.com/2017/05/03northkorea

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