Kim goes nuclear but angers his ally, China. What will Beijing do?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
When North Korea announced on Monday that it had carried out its first successful test of a nuclear device, the regime not only alarmed its enemies, but also hung one of its few friends out to dry. Until now, China had been effectively keeping Kim Jong Il’s brutal dictatorship on life support by supplying most of its fuel and feeding a good share of its impoverished population. Beijing also used its Security Council veto to beat back American attempts to sanction Pyongyang for long-range missile tests in July. “After all the support they’ve given them, after all the effort China has made to resolve this diplomatically, North Korea, in testing this device, has in effect put their thumb in [China’s] eye,” remarked U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton. “The nuclear test will undoubtedly exert a negative impact on our relations,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, with a diplomat’s understatement. China’s UN ambassador Wang Guangya was more blunt, calling for “punitive actions” against Pyongyang. But Wang added that the punishment must be “appropriate”—and however Beijing interprets propriety will effectively set the limits on what the rest of the world can do about the nuclear threat.
That is, of course, assuming there is a nuclear threat. The relative weakness of the explosion recorded by seismic stations in several countries raised the possibility that it could be the result of conventional explosives, or that the device had malfunctioned or “fizzled.” But while scientists consulted their oscilloscopes, world leaders pressed on, assuming that Pyongyang was telling the truth. South Korea suspended aid shipments to flood victims in the North and debated the fate of the “sunshine policy” of economic engagement that earned then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
The Bush administration seized on the rare
moment of international unity to present a hardline resolution to the Security Council, calling for economic sanctions and a stopand-search regime that would allow the seizure of North Korean vessels. The U.S. resolution
‘NORTH KOREA, IN TESTING THIS DEVICE, HAS IN EFFECT PUT THEIR THUMB IN CHINA’S EYE’
also calls for a weapons embargo, a freeze on assets associated with Kim’s weapons program, and a ban on trade in luxury goods such as the Dear Leader’s beloved Hennessy cognac. Critics feared that intrusive vessel searches would create opportunities for violent confrontation. But supporters said such measures are necessary to shut down the regime’s lucrative trafficking in opium and counterfeit pharmaceuticals and currency.
Washington’s resolution was aimed at taking a page out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook: attempting to impoverish a regime in the hopes that it collapses. But a North Korean collapse is a goal China doesn’t share. On the contrary, if Kim’s regime implodes, many of his 23 million countrymen would come streaming across China’s border, destabilizing the country and threatening its economy. But China hardly wants to be next door to a madman and his bomb. “China is in a bind, there
are no good options for it,” says non-proliferation expert Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.
South Korea is also fearful of a collapse in the North. For one thing, it does not want the task of overnight having to integrate millions of impoverished brethren. The mere threat of such instability can harm investment in its economy. But then there is the very direct threat of Kim’s million-man army and conventional weapons pointed south. Although Seoul may want to punish Kim in the short term and dissuade him from further developing his nuclear program, in the long run South Korea may not see a way around re-engagement with the North. Both Koreas have declared peaceful reunification as their eventual goal. South Korea’s aim, Levi says, “is to reform and open up North Korea, much like China has been opened up. They are not looking for a change in ideology, but a change in behaviour.”
Both Beijing and Seoul quickly rejected a military response, although George W. Bush’s administration has not ruled out such an option. Still, it’s hard to see the President ordering strikes on North Korea—given that Kim could devastate Seoul with conventional weapons. “We keep the military option on the table because North Korea needs to know that, but President Bush has been very clear he wants
this resolved peacefully and diplomatically,” Bolton said. A North Korean news agency quoted an unnamed official saying that whether Pyongyang ever deploys a nuclear device depends “on how the U.S. will act.” But thanks to security treaties, any move by Kim against South Korea or Japan would immediately involve the U.S., bringing with it incalculable costs. “Kim Jong II and his regime are not suicidal. Taking significant military action against South Korea and Japan would risk the destruction of his country,” says David Straub, who served as the State Department’s Korea director from 2002 to 2004.
The North Korean test also sparked fears of an Asian arms race, but Japan’s new and nationalistic Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put many at ease when he assured his parliament that “possession of nuclear arms is not an option at all for our country.” The test renewed calls in Washington for acceleration of the missile defence program intended to destroy inbound missiles. (In Ottawa, Senator Colin Kenny, who chairs a committee that recommended that Canada join that enterprise, said: “It’s what missile defence is for.” He added, “A lot of people are talking about it. It’s 1not a near-term solution because there is not a consensus in Canada yet.”)
Why did Kim take this risk? No one can say for sure what motivates the 65-year-old eccentric, who appears indifferent to the suffering of his countrymen even as he harbours
SOUTH KOREA IS FEARFUL OF HAVING TO INTEGRATE MILLIONS OF IMPOVERISHED BRETHREN
such a passion for Hollywood films that he once had a South Korean filmmaker kidnapped to create a film industry in the North. In a sense it was just a matter of time: North Korea has been seeking nuclear technology since the 1950s, and was believed to be capable of developing a weapon since at least the 1990s. In the wake of July’s failed missile
tests, the regime may have wanted to bolster its image before its own people and its neighbours in the South. “These are two states competing for the hearts and minds of the Korean people, and there is a competition for dominance and dictating the terms of an eventual unification,” says Straub, now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Kim may also have wanted a bargaining chip in talks with foreign countries. More likely, though, having the bomb is an insurance policy; the U.S. invasion of Iraq may have suggested to Kim that membership in Bush’s axis of evil is less dangerous if you have a nuclear deterrent.
Can Bolton convince China and others of the need for a tough approach? Straub says no—at least not for very long. “It will probably get a fairly strong initial resolution, but at some point we will reach a limit on what the other countries are willing to do. The countries surrounding North Korea will not be united—and North Korea will get a pass.” M
ON THE WEB: For more Luiza Ch. Savage, visit www.macleans.ca/luizasavage
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