IT IS GETTING ugly on the Korean peninsula, and it was not looking all that pretty to begin with.
However exactly powerful a nuclear bomb North Korea tested over the weekend and whatever the white metallic thing was that the country’s leader Kim Jong-un was photographed posing with — and standing far too close to if it was truly a missile nose cone fitting nuclear device — it is clear that it is too late to stop Pyongyang ‘nuclearising’.
That poses a what-to-do dilemma for US President Donald Trump, who had said that he would not let Pyongyang get this far with its missile programme. It poses an even bigger one for China, which the Western powers, at least, are blaming for not being tough enough on its ally, while from Beijing’s point of view, it is being asked to take all the risk of dealing with Pyongyang while the United States would get most of the benefit.
As this Bystander has noted before, Washington may overestimate Beijing’s sway over Pyongyang. This weekend’s nuclear test marked the third occasion on which North Korea had upstaged President Xi Jinping at a moment when he wanted to project a particular, and strong face of China to the world.
This weekend was meant to be about Xi presenting the BRICS, with China in the vanguard, as the progressive alternative to an increasingly protectionist West. He will not have appreciated Kim hogging the limelight. That Kim feels confident enough to do that to his only ally, again, implies that North Korea is no dutiful vassal state.
That is not to say that Beijing can do nothing more. It can. It remains North Korea’s primary source of oil and could choke that off, just as it has cut off other trade. It has so far resisted the United States’ pressure to impose such a sanction. It fears that doing so could cause a collapse of the regime that would send millions of refugees flooding across the border into northeastern China and, the far bigger concern, trigger a sudden regime collapse in North Korea that would leave US or US-allied troops hard against its border.
Beijing has in the past cut off oil supplies to North Korea on two occasions. Both times Pyongyang returned to the negotiating table in short order, if only for a while.
There are at least two reasons that Beijing will be reluctant to do so again. First, it does not want to be seen at home or abroad to be knuckling under US pressure. Trump has repeatedly lambasted Beijing for not doing more on sanctions (and when it did, then slapped sanctions on some Chinese companies and has subsequently threatened a trade boycott of any country that trades with North Korea, hardly the thank-you that would encourage further co-operation on this front).
Second, it still does not want to cause a sudden shock that would trigger an economic collapse in North Korea. Instead, it will take incremental back-door steps to cut back oil supplies.
There are signs of this already happening. State-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) stopped shipping diesel and gasoline to North Korea in May and June. Ostensibly, this was a corporate decision made on the basis of uncertainty over getting paid. However, such as decision would not have been taken without the express consent of the Party committee within CNPC, and that consent, in turn, would not have been given without express consent and more likely direction from higher up.
Last year, China shipped more than 96,000 tonnes of gasoline and nearly 45,000 tonnes of diesel, worth a combined $64 million, to North Korea. Most of it came from CNPC, but this Bystander would hazard that more and more of China’s other energy companies will discover they have misgivings about trading with Pyongyang and slowly but steadily the oil supply will be choked off.
The statement from the foreign ministry condemning the weekend’s bomb test offers further signs of Beijing’s hardening position towards Pyongyang. While it still called for a resolution to the situation through dialogue, its language was far harsher towards North Korea than in the statements that had followed the five previous nuclear tests.
Denuclearising the peninsula is probably less of a concern for Beijing than Washington, though Beijing would be more than happy for North Korea not to have an independent nuclear deterrent, and especially if its absence bought a removal of the THAAD missile defence system from South Korea as well.
Its priority is to have as much stability on the peninsula as there can be. South Korea response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test (live-fire missile exercises), the planned deployment of a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in near waters and a Seoul-Washington agreement in principle to increase the 500-kilogramme permissible payload on South Korea missiles will all destabilise the peninsula more than stabilise it, not to mention discomfort Beijing.
In this environment, Beijing has two sets of relationships to manage, one with Pyongyang and the other with Washington. Both have highly unpredictable players on the other side. Beijing’s preferred option is to work through the United Nations to mitigate the volatility and to put the United States on the track of recognising that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions can no longer be contained, only managed.
The UN Security Council met today, and its member countries will be working on a new set of tougher sanctions expected to be presented for a vote at the beginning of next week. There is still a gulf to bridge between the Chinese and US positions. Meanwhile, China will be applying its own economic squeeze on North Korea to get Kim back to any sort of negotiating table before he provokes the United States into taking actions that will trigger the regime chaos that Beijing so fears.