The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has imposed ten rounds of punitive sanctions on North Korea. The United States has imposed additional sanctions. In the normal course, these should have brought Pyongyang to its knees. Practically all its avenues of earning foreign exchange have been choked. Its main export items (seafood, minerals, coal, iron ore, textiles etc) have been blocked. Since last year, restrictions have been imposed and progressively tightened on its imports of oil and petroleum products, which are critical to the regime’s survival. Yet, North Korea is undaunted.
It has simply shrugged off the sanctions. Reportedly even gasoline is not in short supply in the country. Its GDP is growing at 3.5 to 4 per cent annually. From all indications, life continues to be normal for the ordinary citizen. How has Pyongyang managed to do so?
North Korea conducted its sixth and to date the most powerful nuclear test on 3rd September 2017. On 29th November it tested Hwasong-15 ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) which on a standard trajectory could have travelled some 13,000 kms, reaching any part of the continental United States. It carried a (dummy?) warhead. It is merely a matter of time before it perfects the re-entry technology. The speed at which North Korea is mastering the sophisticated ballistic missile technology has taken even the experts by surprise.
Now the question is, who has been enabling this pariah state to pose the biggest threat to the peace and security architecture in East Asia and beyond?
The simple truth is that it is none other than North Korea’s patron and neighbour with which it shares a 1420 kms border along the Yalu and Tumen rivers. It is a ‘responsible major country’ (as described by its President) which is a permanent member of the UNSC and poised to become the biggest economy in the world within twenty years. It is the country which has two allies – Pakistan and North Korea – both rogue nations. The country in question is - China.
Beijing has perfected the art of voting for sanctions in New York and then finding imaginative ways of neutralising or blunting them, on the ground. Be it the import of coal or export of petroleum products, Beijing has been merrily circumventing sanctions. In recent days, several reports have emerged of Chinese and Russian ships transferring oil to North Korean vessels in international waters.
It is, however, also a fact that Beijing too is getting increasingly concerned by the turn of events. Given its self-image and posturing as a responsible player in the global arena, it is queasy to be seen as the principal protector of a rogue regime. It is also true that Pyongyang no longer does Beijing’s bidding unquestionably.
The verbal slugfest between Washington and Pyongyang, that is getting sharper by the day, is anything but good news for China. The possibility of conflict in the Korean Peninsula is growing by the day. Pyongyang which sees WMD (weapons of mass destruction) as an insurance for regime survival, is determined not to roll back its nuclear or missile development programme. On the other hand, a nuclearised North Korea has far-reaching negative implications for the strategic balance in East Asia.
Thus, in some ways, Beijing is caught in a cleft-stick, of its own making. Yet it is not willing to let the Kim regime crumble, purportedly to avert instability. The real reason is that China cannot countenance a pro-west regime along its north-eastern border.
Will China succeed in its game of shadow-boxing? There are no easy answers. In some ways, the world is confronted with a stalemate.
The Kim regime will not give up its WMD programme without a fight. For over two decades, it has been successful in stringing its interlocutors along by going through the motions of a negotiated settlement, while stealthily advancing its nuclear ambitions. Conflict is not a realistic option, given the huge human and material cost it will entail, especially for South Korea. Sanctions are not having the desired impact. North Korea seeks unconditional direct talks with the USA. Secretary Tillerson has alluded to such a possibility only to be undermined by President Trump. The biggest fear at the moment is of a miscalculation by either side, setting in motion a chain of events which would be difficult to predict or calibrate.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).