Some recent analyses of the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, where the North Korean regime is repeatedly provoking the U.S. with nuclear threats (nuclear tests, the latest occurring on Sunday, September 3), point to an issue that requires a very careful look. The U.S., China and Russia are the only nuclear powers at the Pacific. The provocations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are aimed at the U.S., even though the international non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction also interests the other aforementioned great powers, particularly China given the emergence of a new nuclear state in its immediate vicinity, in the region in which its predominant standing is individuated ever more poignantly with each passing day. Despite the perception – widespread in the international media – that China is backing the regime in Pyongyang and is avoiding the adoption of a stronger attitude toward its ally or the hastening of a solution to the crisis, it seems things stand a bit differently.
Even President Trump was the prisoner of the aforementioned perception regarding the China-DPRK relationship, signalling – in his numerous tweets since April – Beijing’s crucial role in solving the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, and not seldom expressing his doubt that Beijing would act in the direction he wants. Things seem to have changed very recently at the White House too, one of President Trump’s latest tweets pointing out that he understands China’s difficult role in this dossier and, moreover, even that he doubts China’s ally in Pyongyang listens to it as he should. On September 3, the U.S. President wrote about the significance of the DPRK’s latest nuclear test last Sunday, pointing out the following, among others: “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.” Thus, the White House has noticed that for China a nuclear DPRK, albeit an ally, is a clear danger for Beijing’s regional standing, maybe as much as it is for the U.S.
On the plane of the logic of international relations and of the history and relevance of the resilience of military and security alliances between states, an interesting question is raised. The DPRK has had China as strategic ally ever since the 1950-1953 war, when, faced with the invasion of the communist North, the South resisted backed by a UN coalition led by the U.S. and threatened to defeat the DPRK. Communist China’s saving intervention prompted the signing of an armistice in 1953, still in force since peace has not being concluded yet. Ever since then, China has constantly backed the DPRK in its overtures, except in the case of an aggression against the South, as was the case in April 1975 when, against the backdrop of North Vietnam’s victory, the grandfather of the current leader in Pyongyang believed force could be used again.
Even today, China ensures 83 percent of DPRK’s foreign trade, especially crucial oil supplies. Moreover, every time the nuclear crisis grew worse on the Korean Peninsula because the DPRK disregarded international regulations on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, China played a conciliatory role, pleading for negotiations. Until this summer, when China supported at the UN the decisive resolution on sanctions against the DPRK, as a result of its repeated provocations in April-August 2017. Given such ally’s loyalty shown by China, the resemblance if not similitude of domestic political regimes, why did the DPRK need to build the nuclear bomb? Against the U.S.? But in case of an U.S. attack China’s guarantee would work and is valid right now too, and Beijing has constantly shown it. Less so during this summer, when an editorial published by China’s ‘Global Times’ daily pointed out that China will remain neutral if the DPRK is attacked by the U.S., but that Beijing will act to prevent allied American – South Korean forces from possibly seeking “to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula.”
Thus, once again, the aforementioned question, but phrased differently: does the DPRK feel threatened by both the U.S. and China, the strongest state in the region and also the only one with nuclear capability apart from the U.S. of course (Russia has other foreign policy dimensions rather than dominating the Korean Peninsula)? In the attempt to answer this question, one cannot avoid thinking about what up until recently seemed heresy, namely that what the DPRK is seeking more than the salvation of its ruling communist regime – China’s guarantee is sufficient for that – is to seek shelter from any unpredictable developments in the region – hence toward Beijing too –, but while at the same time having its own future project. Namely the acceptance of its status as nuclear state, which would be obtained against non-proliferation norms, with international legitimacy, because it would be obtained as a result of negotiations. Could it be that Pyongyang wants to get rid of the Chinese guarantee and avoid the importation of the Chinese system of development (market economy, leadership change once every decade etc.)? As Christopher Hill, an American diplomat involved in the negotiations with the DPRK in 2005, emphasised in an article published in June: “In fact, North Korea’s appetite for nuclear weapons is rooted more in aggression than pragmatism. North Korea seeks nothing less than to decouple the United States from its South Korean partner – a split that would enable the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on Kim’s terms. In other words, North Korea does not want only to defend itself; it wants to set the stage for an invasion of its own.” A trenchant answer to the aforementioned questions relative to the DPRK’s regional projects, but also in close connection with the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship, is not easy to give in the current circumstances.
Experts point out that the relations between the two Asian communist states, linked together by an alliance treaty, have not been cordial in recent years, generally since Kim III came to power in Pyongyang. At the same time, attention has been drawn to the fact that a trend that puts into doubt the imperative for Beijing to unconditionally support the DPRK is growing among Chinese security specialists. The said trend is growing against the backdrop of heightened Chinese public opinion resentment toward the current ruler in Pyongyang, and the experts are pointing out the major inconveniences that the current direction of his policy has for China. At a seminar that took place in August 2017 in Shanghai, a professor from the Nanjing University stated that for China the cost of this policy is negative, because it means “to alienate Japan, enrage the United States and irritate South Korea” and that “if Japan and South Korea feel forced to go for radical options like nuclear weapons, it will badly affect regional diplomacy.” In fact, such a position toward China has a tradition in the history of the DPRK. In December 1966, while on a visit to Bucharest, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the dynasty of DPRK leaders, was telling Romania’s communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu: “The Cultural Revolution is China’s domestic problem… On the other hand, the Chinese go along this line to forge Maoism as a world ideology. Because of that, the issue cannot be regarded exclusively as a domestic one since it might have effects on our country as well … Therefore, the only thing we have done was to take measures to defend ourselves against this influence.” Such “confessions” on the part of the Korean communist leader during meetings with Ceausescu are not at all the only ones kept in Romanian archives.
Pyongyang’s defensive position in the face of Chinese hegemony is widely demonstrated in an English-language book published in 2014 in Bucharest, a book on DPRK’s relationship with communist Romania and their joint attempt to avoid the hegemony of the two communist giants of the Cold War – the USSR and China. This historical tradition on Pyongyang’s part makes us wonder whether obtaining the nuclear weapon could also be for the DPRK a measure of defence against the economic development and political leadership model promoted by China or, on a more general plane, against Beijing’s foreign policy in the region.