By Thomas Lee
With almost three months remaining before the 7th Korean Worker’s Party Plenum is scheduled to convene in May, South Korean intelligence sources state that North Korea appears to preparing for its fifth nuclear test. Although few if any signs of test preparations have been detected by satellite imagery, the recent experience with the January 6th test shows that North Korea’s preparation practices have grown harder to detect. And with the unanimous passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2270 in response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January and sixth ballistic-missiles launch in February, the world has shown its frustration. This new resolution, augmenting past United Nations resolutions and unilateral sanctions adopted by the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, has initially been met with North Korean defiance in the form of six short-range missiles.
Regardless of another possible nuclear test, North Korea has successfully captured the world’s attention and put itself at the head of the world’s policy stream. While world leaders and analysts have long relegated North Korea and its leaders to the realm of irrationality due to its unpredictability, political scientists have long argued in favor of nation-states as being rational actors. And despite the fact that it is easier to blame these new provocations on North Korean capriciousness, there is a more logical and reasonable explanation to these brazen acts of belligerence and clear defiance of international treaties.
Through these tests, Kim Jong-un aims to fill the agenda of asserting North Korean “independence” from China. As North Korea has historically tested nuclear weapons and launched missiles around U.S. holidays and important political events in South Korea to antagonize the U.S. and its allies, the idea of China being the new focal point for Pyongyang’s ire does not seem dubious at all. When senior Chinese diplomat Wu Dawei left for North Korea in early February to persuade Kim to step down from his threat of launching a missile, not only did his entreaties fall on deaf ears, Kim also ordered the launch a day earlier so that it fell on that same day, the eve of the Lunar New Year.
The growth of Chinese economic and military capabilities in the past decades has buoyed it in the eyes of others to be a great power. And as it returns to power, it also seeks to reestablish the old tributary system with China at the head. However, North Korea has always resented this relationship and Kim Jong-un is determined to put a halt to this newest incursion.
One of China’s oft-mentioned goals is a denuclearized Korean peninsula. A key to achieving stability in its fragile developing Northeast region is by ensuring North Korean complicity. However, this conflicts with China’s other goal of security. As long as North Korea continues to emphasize nuclear weapons as the only method of regime continuity, Chinese security considerations and international prestige are constantly undermined.
As China becomes increasingly embroiled in its own domestic troubles, Xi Jinping hoped that his recent charm offensive would ensure a stable northeast region and a more complacent ally. But China’s history of condemning the nuclear tests and missile crises, only to shield the North from the brunt of international reaction, has been more than enough to convince North Korea that Chinese policy towards it is hazy at best. In conducting the fourth nuclear test, which threw Northeast China into a panic, Kim Jong-un is vaulting across the field of Chinese patience to determine whether the blurry red line truly exists or not. He is banking on the fact that Xi, overstretched and overreached by its multiple territorial claims, increasingly distracted by internal unrest, and geopolitically interested in stability, will be unable or unwilling to handle the North Korean quagmire in addition to his existing troubles.
Chinese citizens, analysts, and academics have also been speaking up in greater numbers against the status quo. They see no useful return on continued Chinese protection and patronage of the ever bellicose and hostile state. Instead, they see a continual decrease in Chinese dignity and honor on the global stage. Only after the sixth ballistic-missile launch did China change its tone from mediation and reconciliation to outright indignation and infuriation.
With China now backing the new United Nations sanctions, there are signs that this time, China means business. It will no longer tolerate the debilitation of security near its fragile northeast regions to the point that compelled South Korea to bring up THAAD talks. Increased U.S. military investment in the region is not something that China would like to see. With South Korea’s recent decision to shutter the controversial Kaesong complex and major Chinese banks beginning to suspend transactions with North Korean citizens, the screws on North Korea’s economy are slowly beginning to tighten. Of course, these sanctions are nowhere near as enclosing as they could be. Continued sources of revenue for the North Korean regime include exports of manufactured goods and raw materials to China provided that the sale of these goods do not support continued nuclear weapons improvements, and remittances from overseas North Korean workers. If the new sanctions are strictly enforced and Beijing keeps up its end of the bargain, we might see that this time, Kim Jong-un has underestimated Chinese patience on the matter.
Thomas Lee is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of American University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.