A mural at Pyongyang Film Studios in Pyongyang
In the first week of February, North Korea marked the date with yet another provocative missile test, flaring tensions in the region. While the pariah state proclaimed peaceful intentions, American military officials have argued that this was a cover for the testing of its long-range missile technology, intended as to be used as a nuclear warhead delivery system. Along with the United States, Japan, South Korea and even China have voiced concerns about recent North Korean actions, calling for a strong response.
Under President Park’s leadership, South Korea has continued to take a hard line in dealing with its northern neighbour. Park’s decision to completely cut South Korean involvement at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a decade-long cooperative venture between the North and South, has created fears that the crisis may escalate into a full-scale war. Since the complex was reportedly one of the main ways for Pyongyang to finance its nuclear weapons program, the fear of war over the decision to permanently close the complex is certainly not unfounded.
Despite the efforts of various international media outlets in creating a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to speculating on what may happen on the Korean peninsula, such provocative behaviour by the Northern regime is simply the continuation of a well-established pattern, one that is focused more on diplomatic theatre rather than real threats.
Whenever Pyongyang decides that it needs a fresh influx of resources – food, oil, and funds – to ensure that its domestic rule continues unchallenged, it once again engages in aggressive displays in the hopes of getting international aid in exchange for relatively minor concessions. This tactic has unfortunately been quite lucrative for the regime, as it has managed to extract billions in food and energy aid from the international community.
It is clear that the current sanction strategy, used in an attempt to placate and penalize the North for its behaviour, does little to nothing when it comes to making progress on the project of North Korean denuclearization. Additionally, the large amounts of aid provided by the international community – of course, with good intentions – has nevertheless allowed for the continuation of the regime.
The Bully State
North Korea routinely conducts tests of its military hardware for the purposes of domestic propaganda and diplomatic intimidation, which take the form of firing of artillery near the South’s borders, or by launching rockets into the Sea of Japan. At the diplomatic level, such military exercises serve two purposes. The first is an effort by the North to appear as an active threat to its enemies (South Korea, Japan, and to a lesser extent, the United States), which it uses to develop a stronger bargaining position when it comes to inevitable negotiations and high-level talks.
Secondly, the North’s insistence on developing, testing and actively boasting about its supposed nuclear capabilities shows that Pyongyang’s strategists are obviously no strangers to the classic concept of nuclear deterrence. Given that the state most likely does indeed possess a small number of nuclear warheads, (or is, at the very least, capable of producing them, Pyongyang is essentially keeping the region hostage with its nuclear weapons program, through a self-imposed situational deadlock.
While these actions may seem overly belligerent to the casual observer, they are in fact, meticulously calculated provocations by the North intended to illicit a certain international response – one that the Pyongyang can readily predict and influence. It is therefore in the best interests of the North to keep tensions as high as possible, since it offers the possibility of gaining even more of what it needs while keeping the international community at the gates.
North Korea’s behaviour also can be explained by its inability to engage in soft power diplomacy, which requires economic resources and political goodwill in order to influence its regional neighbours through economic or cultural ties. Obviously, Pyongyang lacks both of these carrots, so it is limited to using the stick. The stick takes the form of hard power – military influence, in other words – in order to try to coerce its neighbours to give in to its demands, given that the extremely isolated state lacks any other form of useful leverage. However, there are small yet noticeable signs which suggest that the regime is slowly collapsing under its own weight.
Cracks in the Foundation
Along with its constant military parades intended to show off its apparent military might during major events, the state’s media apparatus proudly proclaims that the country is ready to strike at its enemies at any moment. However, the strength of the North Korean war-machine is mostly skin-deep. One only needs to investigate a little closer to realize that the thousands of soldiers marching in goose-step are just malnourished boys, while the tanks rolling alongside them are out-dated, rusting buckets of bolts.
Additionally, photos taken by tourists and journalists while on sightseeing trips organized by the North’s state-owned tourism bureaus — another key source of state funds — have been able to peel back its carefully groomed image and show the reality: a state that is hanging on by a thread, held together mostly through an ever-weakening system of indoctrination and constant propaganda.
Various investigative reports have suggested that the “big brother” institutions too, are slowly crumbling. For one, there have been an increasing number of regular citizens in recent years taking huge risks in exposing not only the reality of what life in North Korea is like to the outside world. Many North Korean citizens have been taking clandestine measures to gain outside information untainted by government censorship.
Through the modification of radios to gain access to banned broadcasts and foreign radio stations, as well as watching foreign media through smuggled USB flash drives, and even actively questioning the authority of the regime in public suggest that North Koreans are not only questioning the competence of their government, but also actively fighting against it at some level.
However, small-scale internal subversion is not enough to bring the Kim regime to its knees, and neither will the current strategies of wishful thinking and appeasement. At the same time, taking a harsher approach like the South has done in recent months may cause fatal consequences, the worst outcome being a full-scale war triggered by the North. If the U.N. and the international community want to bring an end to the last Stalinist state on the planet, then there has to be a consensus with China – the North’s enabler.
China’s Client Dilemma
Arguably, the main reason that the North’s regime still stands is because of Beijing. China is the North’s largest trading partner, and main supplier of food, weapons, energy resources and diplomatic support. Beijing’s ties with Pyongyang can be likened to a client relationship, as China is well aware of the potential humanitarian disaster that would occur should the North ever fail.
By continuing to support Kim regime, Beijing ensures the existence of a buffer state between China and South Korea – a host to a sizable American military presence. Certainly, while the United States and China have friendly relations and are extensive trade partners, China’s recent territorial claims in the South China Sea have created diplomatic and military tension between the two countries.
At the same time, it is clear for the Chinese that the North is becoming increasingly uncooperative when it comes to ensuring self-control. This frustration can help explain why Beijing has decided to become more receptive to the idea of tightening the leash. In recent months, China’s willingness to cooperate with the U.N. has significantly increased. Along with approving a U.N. resolution to condemn the North for its latest missile tests and expressed some support for penalties, Beijing has also very recently announced that it would implement significant economic sanctions against its southern neighbour.
So, why the change in tone? Despite the traditionally close relationship between China and North Korea, there are signs that their relationship is deteriorating. As The Diplomat’s Kerry Brown noted back in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jingping has left Pyongyang off his regional “to visit” list in recent years, opting instead to spend time in South Korea and Japan. In addition, the North’s constant provocations are taking their toll on Beijing, whose leadership has spent the last several years increasing the role China has played on the international stage, through a self-described policy of a “peaceful rise”. The fact that President Xi broke protocol in deciding to visit the South first instead of the North in a 2014 visit shows that China is starting to look elsewhere for future regional partners.
While the Chinese support of sanctions against the North are a very welcome step forward, it could very well turn out to be mere political theater. In other words, while Beijing may be officially supporting sanctions against Pyongyang, whether or not it decides to actually enforce these measures is another matter. By simultaneously acting tough against the North while secretly turning a blind eye to the very activities it is supposed to prevent, Beijing can ensure a continued buffer zone against the American presence in the South, while gaining international legitimacy. China’s aggressive geopolitical behaviour in the South China Sea, meanwhile, have shown that Xi is more than willing to act in the shadows to strengthen his country’s regional standing, while publically pushing the peaceful and gentle giant narrative.
Solutions Require Cooperation
If the international community intends to act meaningfully and permanently in preventing the North from gaining even more leverage, it is imperative that China and the United States have some common ground to work with. Getting the South in the mix would also be beneficial, as Seoul and Beijing both want to keep the North in check.
In recent years, while economic ties have steadily increased between the two countries, South Korea and China’s diplomatic relationship still needs work. This is partly due to the very close ties that exist between the South and the United States, a country which China sees as a threat to expanding its regional influence.
Because of its close relationship with the United States, Scott A. Snyder suggests that rather than trying strengthen diplomatic ties with China, Seoul has used its American ally as “a hedge and platform that boosts its diplomatic clout in its strategic dealings with China rather than placing the alliance up for negotiation as part of its bid to win China’s support for Korean reunification.” Seoul’s strategy, in other words, sees China as a negative rather than a positive actor when it comes to the question of North Korea, further complicating the ability to implement a solution on the peninsula.
Despite conflicting interests and priorities, relations between South Korea and China are nevertheless improving. In an important symbolic gesture of goodwill, the South under Park has been returning the remains of Chinese soldiers who died during the Korean War, a move that highlights the desire to improve ties. Since the start of the repatriation process in 2013, more than 500 sets of remains have been returned.
Certainly, while all of the actors on the Korean peninsula have competing interests in the region, surely they can all agree that a nuclear-armed and erratic-acting North Korea is something that must be kept in check. Given the significant amount of regional influence that China has not only on North Korea but also the immediate region, Beijing will have to take a leading role in finding a solution to the crisis. Recent actions suggest that it is certainly willing to take up such a role.
Michal Jastrzebski is a graduate of the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and History.