North Korea can't afford to play political games with China's friendship

Donald Kirk says Beijing's show of force near its border was a reminder to Pyongyang that it cannot afford to waste precious resources on military follies against South Korea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 11:41am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 8:50am

Conflict with South Korea was a luxury that North Korea could not afford. Much as leader Kim Jong-un may have yearned to humiliate South Korea by opening fire on the mega-loud speakers broadcasting music, news and invidious commentary into the North from south of the demilitarised zone, he does not have the food, fuel and ammunition to risk a second Korean war.

That's because the North's lone "ally", China, had to have said no. The Chinese, providing North Korea with about 90 per cent of its minimal fuel requirements, plus more than half its food, have ultimate sway and say over Kim's outrageous fantasies. The Chinese have not been able to get him to halt his nuclear and missile programmes, but we may be sure that they have discouraged him from a fourth underground nuclear test and may have convinced him that missile tests are a waste of much-needed resources, as well.

It was in that spirit that Chinese forces, in the midst of the latest "crisis" between the two Koreas, staged a show of force in Yanji, in Jilin province, near the Tumen River border with North Korea. The spectacle of Chinese armour parading through the streets while Chinese troops advanced towards the North Korean border had to have set off alarm bells in Pyongyang.

"Semi-state of war" and "full battle alert", were hollow words by Kim Jong-un for shock effect, nothing more

No, the Chinese certainly were not there to reinforce the North Koreans, as they did during the Korean war in the 1950s. No, the Chinese were not going to invade. Yes, the point was to intimidate the obstreperous North Koreans if they got any foolish ideas about a second Korean war.

Much as the North Koreans hate to be under the thumb of China, they cannot think about expending precious fuel on military manoeuvres when the Chinese can turn off the spigot - or not increase supplies - if needed. It was fine for Kim to engage in big talk about a "semi-state of war" and place his troops on "full battle alert", but those were hollow words for shock effect, nothing more.

North Korea's ability to give an impression of a non-existent threat reached its apotheosis in wild reports about 50 missing North Korean submarines. Those subs run on precious fuel, too. No one knew where they were, but my guess is they were playing hide and seek to fool everyone into thinking they presented a hidden menace while South Korean and US planes and ships scoured the skies and seas.

The North Koreans do deserve credit for creating a sense of crisis, but what do they get from going to the brink and pulling back? One answer is the Chinese may reward the North with increased shipments of food, perhaps trade and aid. In talks that dragged on for three days, the South Koreans may also have promised some rewards if the top North Korean officials across the table would say they were sorry, however reluctantly, for having set a mine that blew off the legs of two South Korean army sergeants. The North Koreans did, begrudgingly, express "regret" - less than a heartfelt apology but enough for the South Koreans to exult in triumph.

Did the Chinese actually tell the North Koreans, through diplomatic and other contacts, that they had better settle on some face-saving deal that would satisfy the demands of both sides?

In fact, North Korea has reason to be concerned about relationships with China's leadership. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been to Beijing three times and is going next week as China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war. Kim has not been to China since taking over after the death of his father in 2011. There are reports that President Xi Jinping has rebuffed hints that Kim would like to meet him.

That's in contrast to China's hosting his father on several visits, including one on which the young man accompanied him. North Korea's acquiescence to the deal with the South has to be welcomed in Beijing. Kim won't be in China for the 70th anniversary, but if he plays along without fomenting further "crises", he may yet find himself in the good graces of his benefactor.

Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea