China as the Korean peacemaker?


China appears to have finally lost patience with North Korea. It backed the UN Security Council’s new sanctions, which mean that Pyongyang loses up to 90 percent of its petroleum product imports and receives no more than four million barrels of crude annually.

The regime of Kim Jong-un has declared the latest sanctions, the third imposed by the UN this year, as an “act of war”. Such rhetoric is surprising in that China, along with the other 14 members of the Security Council, voted for the proposal. Is Kim declaring that Beijing is also guilty of this warlike move? But caution has never been one of Kim’s outstanding characteristics. He will probably be accounting 2017 a very good year for his militarized and buttoned-down country. His scientists have tested increasingly powerful nuclear devices 2,200 meters beneath the long-suffering Mount Mantap. The latest was a hydrogen bomb that, according to Chinese monitors, has brought the mountain close to collapse. Japan reported last month 200 people had been killed in a roof fall. Meanwhile, Kim’s rocket engineers have launched missiles with ever-greater ranges, the latest, according to Pyongyang, being able to hit the United States itself.

For North Korea the logic of these demonstrations of nuclear and rocketry prowess is clear. The country is after all still at war with the United Nations. The 1953 deal that brought three years of savage war to an end on the Korean peninsular was a ceasefire not a peace. Pyongyang has been on the defensive ever since. The regime believes the acquisition of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them has strengthened its ability to deter attack. And on paper this is true. But militarily the calculation clearly breaks down. North Korea would be sure to lose in any nuclear exchange with the international community led by Washington.

However, in geopolitical terms its position would now seem to be much stronger. The devastation caused by nuclear attacks would cause the death of millions, principally in both North and South Korea but also in Japan, whose islands are in easy reach of Pyongyang’s nuclear-tipped missiles. Moreover, Seoul, the South Korean capital, is just 53 kilometers from the border with the North. Assuming that nuclear missiles could be fired from close to this ceasefire line, it would be a major challenge for US interceptor missiles to be launched in time to avoid catastrophic destruction.

Until now, the Kim regime has relied on this threat of massive carnage to deter attack. But Beijing has come to understand that the nuclear hair-trigger that is its southern ally is no longer an acceptable risk. It now seems likely that China will begin the new year with a concerted campaign to persuade the North to de-escalate if not actually abandon its horrific nuclear confrontation with the rest of the world. The terms would be that China formally guarantees North Korea’s independence in return for Pyongyang’s inking of a peace treaty with the UN. That guarantee might even comprise Chinese bases in the North, matching the American military presence in the South.

The opportunity for Beijing to assert its new international power in the face of Washington’s long-standing regional hegemony is surely compelling, assuming of course that Kim Jong-un and his people will play ball.