Beijing’s Pyongyang Puzzle

IT IS UNUSUAL for Beijing to make public what has previously been a private suggestion that the United States stops its annual two-month military exercises with South Korea in exchange for North Korea halting its nuclear and missile programmes.

It is a trade-off that Washington and Seoul have equally publicly rejected, to no one’s very great surprise. But it indicates a growing sense of urgency on Beijing’s part about the situation on the Korean peninsula especially given the policy vacuums in both Washington and Seoul caused by the new Trump administration and the expected imminent impeachment of President Park Geun-hye respectively.

Pyongyang has said that the four missiles it launched earlier this week were a test strike against US bases in Japan. Provocative language. The same day, the first components of the THAAD missile defence system arrived in South Korea — a deployment seen similarly provocatively in Pyongyang but also in Beijing.

Beijing’s denial of reports of retaliatory pressure on South Korean businesses convinces few.

Meanwhile, the shadow of February’s fatal attack on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur airport continues to fall widely. If, as is widely suspected, it was a North Korean hit, and one involving chemical weapons,  then the Trump administration may move to reverse President George W Bush’s 2008 delisting of Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terrorism.

That, in turn, would dash the hopes of the likely next government of South Korea that the Trump administration may be more willing to enter dialogue with North Korea. On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump had said he would be prepared to meet Kim Jong-un, though he has not repeated the offer as president.

The next South Korean government, whoever leads it, it likely to return to the ‘sunshine’ policy of greater engagement with North Korea than the current scandal-embroiled one.

Some evidence is now emerging that the Obama administration was quietly taking a harder line against the North than appeared on the the surface, cyberhacking North Korean missile launches last year, with some success, in retaliation for the believed North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures in 2014. 

However, the Trump administration, in the absence of a better shaped policy, has mainly fallen back on browbeating China to do more to rein in its neighbour, a capacity it may not have, or at least to the degree Washington believes. For its part, China, under whose protection Kim Jong-nam had lived in Macau and Beijing, is hopeful that diplomacy can replace stand-off and the unsettling uncertainty that goes with it.

Last month, it suspended coal imports from North Korea until the end of this year, a hefty blow to North Korea’s revenue as it accounts for two-fifths of the country’s export earnings, and the toughest sanctions China has imposed to date. Beijing had previously been using a ‘living-standards’ loophole in the UN sanctions against North Korea to sustain the coal trade despite its formal adherence to them.

That it has now changed its stance on this indicates both the frustration of many Chinese officials at what looks like an increasingly anachronistic ally in Pyongyang and their impotence to do more.

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