North Korea nuclear crisis

North Korea's nuclear test gives Beijing a reason to confront Kim

Trefor Moss says North Korea's third nuclear test will have done the world a favour if it finally convinces China to lead, rather than block, efforts to nullify the serious security threat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 5:46am

Stop whatever you were doing! Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, demands your attention. He just set off a nuclear bomb in order to get it. It would be easy to dismiss Kim as Asia's resident megalomaniac - to mock him as a totalitarian goofball who doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. He certainly doesn't look intimidating, chubby and callow as he is, seemingly more into mushrooms than mushroom clouds.

But that would be a mistake: Kim might just be the most dangerous man in Asia.

Last week, he ordered his country's third nuclear weapons test, its first in several years; he is reported to have told the Chinese government that there will soon be more nuclear blasts in an unprecedented acceleration of Pyongyang's testing programme.

This all comes two months after the North successfully test-fired a ballistic missile, the eventual delivery mechanism for Kim's nuclear warheads. North Korea's nuclear weapons are probably not yet operational, but at the current rate of progress they soon will be.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim Jong-un is more mafia don than president, his regime more crime syndicate than legitimate government. The main difference is that Kim III is young and untested, and has a lot to prove to the hardliners in his own inner circle - something that makes him all the more dangerous and unpredictable.

Kim isn't making idle threats. He's pointing his nuclear missiles straight at you, whether you're in Seoul, Tokyo or Hong Kong. As ransom, Kim demands your food and your money, and your respect, in return for which he will refrain from vaporising you in a 10-million-degree Celsius fireball - but definitely not give up his nukes, because in a couple of years' time he plans to go through the whole routine again. Not so funny now, is he?

And yet, as perverse as it may seem, Kim's nuclear test may just have done us all a favour. He wanted our attention, and he got it. He forced us to notice, at nuclear gunpoint, the extreme threat that exists right on our doorstep. In doing so, he put the region's other security problems into proper perspective. China and Japan, in particular, have been tying themselves up in knots over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, tiny nowhere-places suddenly made to look important by bureaucratic missteps and reckless official grandstanding. Now, thanks to Kim, they have a real security problem to worry about.

Moreover, thanks to the nuclear-armed crime lord, China and Japan have suddenly found some common purpose. A senior Japanese diplomat has arrived in Beijing, reportedly to discuss a collective approach to Pyongyang's provocative actions. These talks can only help prepare the ground for the top-level negotiations over the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute that both Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping , the leaders of Japan and China, say they want to happen soon.

Whether China and Japan manage to come up with any fresh ideas about how to handle Kim is another matter, however. North Korea's nuclear blackmail may be a puzzle without a solution. The United States has tried sanctions, but while the North Korean people have starved, Kim and his cronies hardly look like people who are struggling. Outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's hardline approach to Pyongyang did not make his country any safer, while incoming president Park Geun-hye has already seen her offer of engagement thrown back in her face by Kim's provocations.

If anyone holds the missing piece to the Korean puzzle, it's China. It has always been supportive of the Kim family regime. But last week North Korea rewarded China's friendship with bald contempt, dismissing Chinese appeals for restraint.

Beijing might now prefer to ditch its wayward ally, but fears the implications of the regime collapsing. Nonetheless, China's open condemnation of Kim's nuclear antics has raised hopes that Beijing might finally be ready to leave Pyongyang's corner. After all, China has its dignity: how can it allow this ingrate to accept Chinese aid with one hand, and then stick two fingers up at the Chinese people with the other?

The biggest favour that Kim has done the region is in presenting China with ample justification to start leading, rather than obstructing, the international effort to nullify North Korea's nuclear threat. We already know that foreign pressure without Chinese participation cannot succeed. But with real Chinese support, it is hard to see how it could fail.

Right now, Chinese trade with North Korea - both legal and illegal - keeps the Kim regime on life support. China should tell Kim that it will pull out the tubes unless he quits his nuclear blackmail.

Beijing may worry about North Korea collapsing, but you can be certain that Kim worries about it a whole lot more. He will do whatever it takes to stop that happening, even if it means suspending nuclear development and initiating a programme of Chinese-style market reforms - something else that Beijing has long called for, to no effect.

Or, if Kim's stubbornness truly extends to self-destruction, let his no-good regime implode: the short-term consequences for China would probably not be as grave as Beijing fears, and North Korea, China and the world would be better off in the long run.

China has the leverage; now is the time to start turning the screws. After all, what type of country does modern China want to be: a leader that makes our region better and safer, or the running dog of an otherwise friendless nuclear extortionist?

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and former Asia-Pacific editor for Jane's Defence Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Trefor1