The North Korea that can say no

By Bruce Cumings | January 11, 2016

Some years ago, I spoke with a former Soviet official who had worked in North Korea. He said that you could try to direct, cajole, or nudge the leadership to do something that, to a foreigner, looked to be in their best interests. They would smile, seem to nod assent, or might even say yes, then do the opposite—even when it directly contradicted their presumed interests. You can call it bloody-minded, self-centered, even pig-headed; they don’t care. But this dogged insistence on going their own way is as much a part of North Korea’s historic behavior pattern as it is a palpable obstacle to international cooperation—even with North Korea’s close allies.

This trait might explain one of the real oddities in US-North Korean relations, which occurred back in the early months of the Obama administration. In the only burst of activism toward engaging the North in the past seven years, Washington brought to the table a package of proposals to revive the Six-Party talks, in return for a moratorium from North Korea on testing nuclear weapons or launching long-range missiles. A short time later, on April 5, 2009, the North sent a Taepodong-2 rocket into the stratosphere, where it tried but failed to put a satellite up. No American official could explain this odd sequence of events—at least publicly. They treated it as a direct stab in the back, ending any attempts at engagement, while the North said it had informed the Americans of the coming launch.

After this week’s nuclear weapons test, it is China’s turn to wonder about a knife in the back. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is North Korea’s neighbor, and has for decades been its closest ally. Personal relationships among the top leaders of the two countries go back 80 years, when Kim Il Sung was part of a joint Korean-Chinese guerrilla war against Japan in Manchuria, and joined the Chinese Communist Party. China saved North Korea from oblivion when it intervened in the Korean War in 1950.

But at least since the North’s third nuclear test in February 2013, relations between the two countries have been unprecedentedly cold. After the tests, Chinese president Xi Jinping openly stated that Pyongyang’s actions threatened world peace. Mister Xi has subsequently met several times with South Korean president Park Keun Hye, with whom he apparently has a warm friendship—and in a fit of pique, Pyongyang responded by blowing off several short- and medium-range missiles on the eve of Xi’s visit to Seoul in July 2014.

In recent months, China has sought to warm up the relationship wih the North. Last October, it sent Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan to North Korea’s celebration in Pyongyang of the 70th anniversary of the founding of its Worker’s Party. Liu was the highest-ranking visitor from the PRC in several years; he was seen waving from a podium with Kim Jong Un high above the central square, where millions had gathered for the event. Some analysts thought that the quid pro quo for this visit was the North’s pledge not to test A-bombs or long-range missiles, as Javier C. Hernandez wrote in the New York Times. In an act that seemingly supported this view, in December Kim Jong Un sent his favorite singing group—the Moranbong Band, consisting of 20 pretty young women in stylish Western garb—to Beijing for several performances. When it became clear that no high officials would show up for the gala opening, the group was abruptly called home. It is likely that Beijing had picked up signs of the coming nuclear test; in any case, China condemned the test, and relations are back in a deep freeze.

On the surface, China’s actions would seem to be a big problem for Pyongyang. Most of the goods available in North Korea’s markets are made in China. Pyongyang earns huge amounts of foreign exchange from Chinese firms exploiting its coal, metal, and mineral reserves (which are seemingly inexhaustible). The North’s trade with China was estimated at more than $6 billion in 2015, not counting informal or black market trade which is also assumed to be quite substantial.

On the diplomatic front, North Korea has also suffered from the Chinese response to its nuclear tests. China has also joined the United States and other countries in slapping United Nations sanctions on the North, and no doubt will do so again in the coming days. This is a major turn-about—for more than a decade, high American officials (especially Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the second Bush administration) have been hoping that Beijing would join with Washington to gang up on Pyongyang and maybe even end the Kim regime.

Such thinking assumes a uniform view in Beijing about North Korea. In fact China’s leadership, and the general public, are quite split. Many hardliners in the military and the party like the North (and correspondingly hate the United States). Xi Jinping is really the first Chinese leader openly to denounce Pyongyang’s provocations, whereas his predecessor, Hu Jintao, gave a secret speech in September 2004 in which he lauded the North’s closed political system for its ability to keep out subversive Western ideas and practices. No Chinese leader wants South Korea, with 28,000 American troops on the ground, controlling the Yalu River border. President Obama’s consistent strategy toward South Korea and Japan has been to get them to jettison their historical grievances and unite with the United States in containing China’s growing power in the region. Tensions in the East and South China seas, mostly caused by Chinese expansionism, have tended to unite various countries behind American policy. In this milieu, China has many reasons not to make an open break with North Korea.

The key irritant in Sino-North Korean relations is that with every A-bomb or missile test, Washington ramps up its deterrent efforts in Northeast Asia, sending carrier task forces into the Yellow Sea, routing B-2 and B-52 bombers to the Korean theater, and deploying ever more anti-ballistic missile batteries, which China sees as a threat to its older missiles, including its antiquated ICBMs.

In the end, the likely Chinese response to the North’s so-called “H-bomb” test will be a lot of hot air, more toothless or ineffective sanctions, and no serious break in Sino-Korean relations. There will be a continuation of the status quo between the two countries, while Pyongyang builds an ever more effective arsenal of bombs and missiles. North Korea’s obstreperous behavior, so exasperating to foreign powers, might also be seen as a Game Theory 101 strategy by a small country surrounded by bigger powers who, when all is said and done, really don’t like their smaller neighbor. Roar loudly, beat your chest, threaten all manner of mayhem, and recall Muhammad Ali’s maxim: “I don’t have to be who you want me to be.”

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