Who Protects Kim Jong-Un?

North Korea’s fourth nuclear test (January 06) has reopened the debate on the security of North–East Asia.

While roundly condemned by all, including India, there seems to be no effect on this reclusive nation’s leader Kim Jong-un and the nation as a whole. The previous tests were conducted in 2006, 2009 and 2013, and had also attracted sharp international criticism. Going nuclear is an old strategic plan of the nation, invigorated by Kim Jong-un’s father and supreme leader of the country, Kim Jong-il.

Following the test, the North Korean official news agency KCNA said the country’s nuclear arming was for self-protection and cited the examples of what happened to Saddam Hussain and Muammar Gaddafi who were cajoled by the USA to give up their nuclear programmes. As far back as 2003, North Korean officials had told a trusted westerner that the US attack on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain would not have happened if Saddam had not agreed to dismantle his nuclear programme and his medium range scud missiles. North Korea, therefore, would continue with its nuclear programme.

Pyongyang claims that their hydrogen bomb (thermonuclear) test has been successful. The yield was around 6 kilotons, far too small for a H-bomb. Experts around the world are not convinced about the North Korean claim. Pyongyang clandestinely acquired enrichment technology from Pakistan in exchange for missile technology. This trade or exchange ended when Pakistan’s illegal nuclear proliferation was exposed. At that time Pakistan had mastered the H-bomb technology claiming that its 1998 nuclear tests had included a successfully tested H-bomb.

There is no evidence that Pyongyang has perfected miniaturizing technology of nuclear bombs to fabricate missile warheads. Nevertheless, the possession of a nuclear device by a country like North Korea is almost an existential threat for neighbours like South Korea and Japan, with which it has nurtured a visceral antipathy since the war. China was North Korea’s ardent supporter and had sacrificed many lives of the People’s Liberation Army in a war involving ideology. China also allowed its territory and facilities to be used clandestinely by North Korea (as well as Pakistan) for their missile and nuclear cooperation. Pakistan used aircraft of Shaheen Airlines controlled by Pakistan’s proliferation czar, Dr. A. Q Khan.

It cannot therefore, be denied that China has been complicit in Pyongyang adopting the nuclear option. History was different then – during those years both countries loudly proclaimed their “lips to teeth” friendship. A strong North Korea was an asset to Beijing in a region dominated by the US and its allies, South Korea and Japan, to counter China. The Sino–Soviet rift was another challenge for Beijing.

Since then global dynamics has changed drastically. China has emerged as a world power, strong enough to dictate its course but with adjustments. It has still not reached the position it is striving for, when it can play some cards which it is hiding, but glimpses of which are becoming increasingly visible. North Korea still remains very important in China’s strategic planning though it has embarrassed China repeatedly. For instance, Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the six-party (North Korea, China, US, South Korea, Japan and Russia) talks on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in 1988-99; its sinking of a South Korean frigate; shelling of a South Korean island and issuing of threats to South Korea and Japan brought immense pressure on China. Inside China strong opinions prevailed that Beijing should cut Pyongyang loose as this relationship was causing China more harm than good. Though Beijing both privately and publicly criticized and took punitive steps by temporarily suspending or reducing oil supplies, it never let its friend down. But bilateral relations remain under some strain.

Following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear weapon test, reactions coming out of China, through official statements and expert comments, appear to be on two tracks. Officially, Beijing chastised North Korea and has become proactive trying to restart the nuclear talks. It has done so to be in step with world opinion. But it has also in parallel, aimed at smoothening the situation to ensure that harsh UN and international sanctions are not imposed on Pyongyang. Anyway, the existing sanctions were not applied as stringently as the sanctions on Iran.

On the other hand, expert comments in the official media in China suggest that blame is being shifted on the USA, South Korea and Japan. The comments state that North Korea is being provoked by the naval and military exercises between South Korea, USA and Japan, led by Washington, and pointedly aimed at Pyongyang. These exercises, however, are not ambiguous by any means. It has been officially stated that these exercises are structured to warn Pyongyang against any misadventure.

China claims that it no longer wields the kind of influence over North Korea that it once did. The relationship dipped when China established diplomatic relationship with South Korea in 1994. Pyongyang felt betrayed and made no secret about it. China’s efforts to draw Pyongyang’s supreme leader into a reform and economic development path such as its own did not succeed. North Korean senior leaders who tried to open up to foreign economic relations have been executed. North Korea, especially under Kim Jong–un, does not retire or dismiss such officials. This regime is especially cruel and is dismissive about China’s protests.

Kim Jong-un is very well aware that the lifeline of his regime is in China’s hands. Yet he dares to defy China, because he knows that Beijing needs him and North Korea as it is.

It is not that China is not concerned. But it is looking at larger strategic interests, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs. North Korea is the only communist regime in existence and is an ideological statement for China’s internal party politics. It is the only friendly communist country and hardliners in the communist party of China would raise questions.

Next, an imploding North Korea can unleash an exodus of North Koreans into China, which could cause serious law and order problems. Third, a defunct North Korea can merge with South Korea, creating a unified Korea, over which the US will have significant influence, bringing a nuclear US with boots on the ground on China’s immediate shoulders.

With the recent resolution between South Korea and Japan over South Korean “comfort women” or sex slaves during the Japanese invasion of Korea, a new cause for concern has been created for China. This one development may rearrange the security balance paradigm in North-East Asia. Both Japan and South Korea are capable of becoming nuclear weapon states if given the go-ahead by the USA. The US appears to be encouraging Japan to become more self-reliant for defence requirements.

China is in a difficult situation here. Is it serious about making North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons programme and re-invite the IAEA nuclear inspectors? Or does it want to keep North Korea on a nuclear threshold and not become a deliverable nuclear power?

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