The Korean peninsula is once again an active flashpoint. Indeed, 38th parallel that underpins the 1953 armistice line, which ended hostilities, is not a peace agreement to end the war.
During the 1950-53 war, as the US forces appeared advancing towards the Chinese border, Beijing rushed its forces to face the challenge. Fortunately, an armistice deal was negotiated dividing the Korean peninsula between North Korea under Chinese influence and South Korea under US influence.
By its very nature, the armistice deal is a temporary solution to halt military conflict until the two Koreas work towards peaceful reunification. This is proving illusory even after some 65 years. North Korea has since developed a small nuclear arsenal and is now busy putting together a missile delivery system to threaten its neighbours and the United States.
Efforts in the past, including negotiations initiated by China to include US, Russia, North Korea, Japan and South Korea didn’t make much headway. This ismainly because the US wishes North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program first and then talk about political, economic and security guarantees. Even the little progress made in the early 2000s fell through because the Bush regime didn’t trust the North Koreans.
Since then, their respective positions have only hardened. North Korea would only initiate denuclearisation once it is convinced that the US and its allies are not working to overthrow the regime. In other words, the Kim dynasty is horribly paranoid, not entirely without justification though, that the US is working to destabilise and overthrow it.
And the proof to them is the annual joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, which Pyongyang regards as rehearsals, if not real military manoeuvres, to attack North Korea. Pyongyang goes on high alert with some dramatic nuclear and missile tests, as with recent four missile tests whenever such exercises are conducted. Which, in turn, leads to further UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against the North Koreans.
Beijing is critical of Pyongyang’s nuclear rattling and this time it has suspended coal imports from North Korea over its recent missile testing. It favours negotiations, a possible revival of six-power Beijing diplomatic parleys, which though didn’t work because of the irreconcilable position of both sides with deep-rooted mistrust.
North Korea strongly believes that without its credible nuclear deterrence, backed by an effective nuclear and missile arsenal, it would have no hope of political survival.
For China, the Korean peninsula is its political and strategic backyard. During the Korean War, it fought to save North Korea’s communist regime both to ward off a threatened American advance towards its borders as well as to preserve it as a buffer against US control of South Korea.
North Korea, however, remains a difficult customer even when overwhelmingly dependent on China. Even though it might fear the US, Pyongyang is distrustful of China too lest it create an alternative power centre to the ruling dynasty. Kim Jong-un had his uncle executedpossibly because he was regarded as close to China.
Recently, his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, once considered political heir to his father, was poisoned in Kuala Lumpur while heading to Macau, where he had been living in exile. He apparently thought he would be safe in China, but Pyongyang found his transiting through Malaysia a convenient opportunity to get rid of him, which led to a diplomatic crisis.
As for China, if Kim Jong-nam was enjoying its protection, it would find it hard to difficult to resolve the matter.
All this time, China hasn’t been able to create a decisive political leverage on North Korea to control its erratic and dangerous policies. Recent incidents would suggest that Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang is rather limited, if not tenuous.
Therefore, it is seeking to carve out a role as an ‘honest’ broker between the two sides urging them to de-escalate and return to diplomacy. Chinese premier Li Keqiang, in a recent gathering, said, ‘Tensions may lead to conflict, which will only bring harm to all the parties involved.’ At the same time, China is also rattled by the imminent installation of US missile defence system in South Korea to counter North Korea that may also affect its own regional clout.
China possibly can bring to bear more pressure on Pyongyang by further tightening the economic screws, but that has the potential of bringing down the Kim regime. However, in the absence of a carefully controlled political alternative which China apparently doesn’t have, Beijing would dread the prospect of chaos on its border with potential refugees from North Korea.
It could also open the possibility, at some point, a reunification of the two Koreas, with the dreaded prospect of enhanced US strategic presence in the region. Considering all of this, it is no wonder China wants to play the honest broker. But the problem is how to assuage Pyongyang’s paranoia and its belief that only an enhanced nuclear deterrence wouldprotect it.
Against this backdrop, the recent visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Beijing is unlikely to make much headway.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org