BEIJING: A ruthless yet calculating dictator armed with a limited nuclear arsenal, Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea and supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (i.e., North Korea), is playing a dangerous war game.
The only ally of the hermit country, China finds itself in a peculiar predicament in a possible military conflict between North Korea and the US, with significantly less leverage under President Xi Jinping. US President Donald Trump apparently has some trump cards in his hands. However, Moon Jae In, the new South Korean President, might offer some hope in dealing with the deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear issue.
KIM JONG UN’S WAR GAMES
Having supervised another missile test on May 14 that aimed at verifying the capacity to carry a “large-scale heavy nuclear warhead”, Kim Jong Un is playing a dangerous war game. Under his leadership, North Korea has sped up its nuclear programme.
His father, Kim Jong Il, conducted two nuclear tests: One on October 9, 2006 and one on May 25, 2009. But Kim Jong Un has supervised three nuclear tests since 2013. He conducted his first nuclear test on February 12, 2013, followed by a second on January 1, 2016 and a third on September 9, 2016.
Now he is reportedly preparing for his fourth nuclear test, which will also be North Korea’s sixth.
A ruthless dictator who executed Jang Song Thaek, Vice Chairman of the National Defence Commission (the number two position in North Korea) and the husband of his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui (the only daughter of his grandfather Kim Il Sung and the only sister of his father Kim Jong Il) and had his brother Kim Jong Nam assassinated, Kim Jong Un is threatening an all-out war with the US.
XI JINPING’S PREDICAMENT
Chinese President Xi Jinping has found himself in a peculiar predicament over the North Korean nuclear issue. Although Xi is widely believed to be far more popular as a global leader than his immediate predecessor, President Hu Jintao, he is significantly less effective in managing the North Korean nuclear problem.
When Hu was President of the People’s Republic of China, he managed to bring all relevant parties together in the Six-Party Talks. Five months after Hu became the Chinese President, the first round of talks among China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the US began in Beijing on August 27, 2003. The talks went through six rounds between 2003 and 2009. Clearly, China was the dominant player in these talks.
Moreover, China under Hu Jintao had cordial relations with all five other parties. The relationship between China and North Korea was the best since 1992. Kim Jong Il was a frequent visitor to China. He visited China five times between 2004 and 2011. President Hu paid a state visit to North Korea in October 2005.
China also had good relations with South Korea. Following his visit to Pyongyang in October 2005, Hu visited Seoul in November of the same year when South Korea formally gave China “market economy” status.
China-Japan relations were also very good. Two days after Hu’s successful state visit to Japan in May 2008, a huge earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 hit the Sichuan province. The Japanese rescue team was the first foreign rescue team to be permitted to enter the disaster zones.
Under Hu, China-US relations were also the best since 1989. US President George W. Bush would rather come to Beijing for the Olympic Games than meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C. in 2008. China also had good relations with Russia.
In contrast, China under Xi Jinping is no longer a dominant player in the Northeast Asian region and has found enemies among these previous partners. The relationship between China and North Korea has been at its lowest point since 1992. Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of North Korea since December 2011, has not visited China. Nor has Xi visited Pyongyang as the top leader of China.
China’s relations with Japan have become significantly worse. President Xi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe do not get along.
Although Xi successfully cultivated good personal relations with former President Park Geun Hye of South Korea, China-South Korea relations have witnessed the most drastic downturn since July 2016 when South Korea decided to deploy the US-backed Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system.
Although officially hailed as an “exemplary partner” to China after Xi’s state visit to Seoul in July 2014, the Chinese government has recently taken more than 40 retaliatory actions against South Korea, including expelling Korean missionaries from China and cancelling concerts by Korean musicians. The Chinese people have also been involved in various forms of protests against South Korea including boycotting Korean products.
The bilateral relationship between China and Russia is a bit warmer under Xi Jinping, but Russian President Vladimir Putin does not work with China over the North Korean nuclear issue on the same terms. While China is staging economic sanctions against the hermit country along with the US, Russia is taking steps to develop closer economic cooperation with North Korea.
American President Donald Trump is working more closely with China over the North Korean nuclear issue, but he has been collaborating with President Xi on the US’ terms.
DONALD TRUMP’S TRUMP CARDS
Apparently, President Trump has some trump cards in his hands. On the one hand, he has sent a clear signal to Kim Jong Un that he is seriously considering a military option. In spite of China’s strong opposition, THAAD is now operational in South Korea. Called “an armada” by President Trump, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group is also on its way to the Sea of Japan, off the Korean peninsula. President Trump has also warned that another nuclear test by North Korea would trigger a US military response.
On the other hand, President Trump has indicated his willingness to talk to Kim Jong Un face-to-face. Calling the dictator a “pretty smart cookie”, President Trump said he considers it an honour to meet with the supreme leader of North Korea, “under the right circumstances”.
SOUTH KOREA’S NEW PRESIDENT AND HOPE
South Korean new president, Moon Jae In, seems to offer new hope for the deadlock. The son of a refugee from North Korea, President Moon favours a peaceful unification with North Korea. During his presidential campaign, he promised a first visit to North Korea as President of the Republic of Korea. A close friend and loyal aide of President Roh Moo Hyun, President Moon is also promoting a policy toward North Korea similar to the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun.
For President Xi, President Moon Jae is a godsend, very much like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Days before a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration made a ruling on the dispute brought by the Philippines against China over the South China Sea in China’s disfavour in July 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines. The grandson of a Chinese immigrant, President Duterte has adopted a pro-China policy and since visited Beijing in October 2016.
Once a thorny issue, the South China Sea has lost its steam for China. It remains to be seen, however, whether President Xi can seize the opportunity to work with President Moon in dealing with the North Korean crisis.
It is not realistic to expect North Korea to give up its nuclear weapon programme through talks. But a more conciliatory approach by the South Korean leader might help ease tensions between the hermit country and the US and its allies.
Compared to a possible nuclear war, peace and stability are certainly more desirable.
Dr Bo Zhiyue, a leading authority on China’s politics, is founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services on China to heads of governments and CEOs of multinational corporations.