North Korea Tests China and the World

By Shim Jae Hoon

Repeating the past, North Korea's young ruler Kim Jong Un has threatened the US and South Korea with dire consequences for opposition to the nation's missile adventurism. In a break from the past, Kim issued thinly disguised criticism of North Korea's principal benefactors - China and Russia. The latest turn in North Korea's brinkmanship will test China's newly installed party Secretary General Xi Jinping.

In strident responses to UN Security Council's January 24 resolution stiffening sanctions over the December rocket launch, the North claims it's ending talks over denuclearization efforts; it will also conduct a new underground nuclear test of a "high level" device, predicted to target the United States.

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The threat against the US, the first since Kim's inauguration, followed signs of a thaw. Its most striking element was Kim's veiled criticism of "some big nations" for failing to create what it called "fair and just international order," allowing small countries like North Korea to develop nuclear arsenals. North Korea was clearly stung by Resolution 2087, unanimously supported by all 15 nations, including China and Russia, with calls for tightening control over the North's international financial transactions and freezing assets of six organizations including its space agency. The resolution adds four individuals to travel bans and promises promises further "significant action" if the North continues violating sanctions.

Before the recent crisis, Kim seemed to offer an olive branch to South Korea. Kim, 30, departed from tradition and in the first radio speech by a North Korean leader since 1994, in which he suggested: "An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving reunification is to remove confrontation between the North and South." Some analysts speculated that he might be ready for dialogue with the new government of South Korea President-elect Park Geun Hye.

His volte face in threatening South Korea for supporting the US thus has raised speculation. Few can fathom the mood in Pyongyang and and a regime operating in opacity: Is an omnipotent military group pressuring Kim? Is he panicking at the prospect of tighter UN sanctions?

With the North Korean military system deeply involved in weapons trade, especially nuclear and missile technology with Iran, it's possible such factors are at play. The North's statement indicates Kim is stung by China and Russia's support for the resolution, although China agreed to back the US draft only on condition that no new sanctions are imposed. Thus, the draft expanded existing sanctions.

The statement suggests bitterness at a betrayal by Beijing and Moscow, Cold War allies. But such protest has its limits: State-of-the-art weaponry comes from Moscow, and the North is critically dependent on China which supplies half its food and energy - up to 400,000 tons of grant-type food aid each year, depending on need, and 500,000 tons of crude oil, according the newspaper Chosun Ilbo. In 2003, China briefly stopped oil supply to the North after the US complained about the North's clandestine uranium-enrichment program, suggesting that China can exert control.

Beijing has leverage over the Pyongyang regime.

Why then bite the hand that feeds? Perhaps because Kim is acutely aware of the geopolitical value of North Korea as a buffer state next to US ally South Korea. Kim's latest show of defiance may also be his reaction to China's recent courting of South Korea in the midst of growing tenions with Japan over the Senkaku territorial disputes. In a change of style in recent weeks, Xi and other senior Chinese leaders like Dai Bingguo have gone out of their way to increase contacts with Seoul officials, stressing a common stand against Japan based on history.

Asked at a 23 January foreign ministry briefing as to how Beijing would respond to a third nuclear test by the North, spokesman Hong Lei described the situation as "complicated and sensitive" and urged restraint: "We have unfailingly advocated denuclearization of the Korean peninsula... it is China's position that the six-party conference is the effective way to attain this objective."

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Shim Jae Hoon in a Seoul-based journalist. © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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