Over the weekend, two events dramatically added to tensions in Northeast Asia: a U.S. citizen was detained as they tried to leave Pyongyang and North Korea stated that it was “ready” to sink a U.S. aircraft carrier.
Amidst an already byzantine relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, North Korea has continued to develop its missile program – both ballistic and nuclear – and conducted its latest “successful” test shortly before the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping in early April.
Following Xi’s visit to Mar-a-lago, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un staged a grandiose military parade in commemoration of the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung, featuring two new intercontinental ballistic missile-sized canisters and unveiled previously unseen land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
In light of these incidents, the world will be looking to the Korean peninsula with its breath held as North Korea prepares to mark the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday.
However, despite the magnitude of these events, an even greater geopolitical shift has taken shape over the past week or so: the potential deterioration of relations between China and its long-time ally North Korea. China’s patience with the Kim regime has just about reached a tipping point and depending on the subsequent events in Northeast Asia, 68-years of diplomatic relations between the two countries may come to an abrupt end.
No Sign of Tensions Ending
On Saturday, North Korean authorities detained a third American citizen as they tried to leave the country from Pyongyang’s international airport. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which looks after consular affairs for the United States, said it had been made aware of a Korean-American citizen who had been detained.
According to Park Chan-mo, the chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the individual in question has been identified as Tony Kim. Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk, is a professor at Yanbian University in China and had been in the country for a month in connection with relief programs. North Korea has so far made no comment on the detention.
A day later, the newspaper of North’s Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Rodong Sinmun, said in a commentary, “Our revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carrier with a single strike.”
This statement complemented the words of a Foreign Ministry spokesmen in one of three epistles, also over the weekend, “The DPRK will react to a total war with an all-out war, a nuclear war with nuclear strikes of its own and surely win a victory in the death-defying struggle against the U.S. imperialists.”
These declarations were on the back of equally inauspicious rhetoric from North Korea’s vice-foreign minister, Han Song-ryol, who in a rare interview with the BBC said that Pyongyang would continue to test missiles and would launch a preemptive nuclear strike if it thought the U.S. was planning an attack.
North Korea has upped the ante following both joint missile defense exercises between the U.S., South Korean and Japanese navies in the western Pacific, and a statement by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence who said the USS Carl Vinson, a U.S. carrier strike group consisting of an aircraft carrier and other warships, was on its way to the Korean Peninsula.
There had previously been confusion surrounding the direction of the strike group, which had been reported as sailing away from the Peninsula instead of towards it as President Trump had said. However, reports have now confirmed that the President has re-ordered the USS Carl Vinson to sail to waters just off the Korean peninsula.
Another military action in the region worth noting: Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Russia’s border with North Korea after China reportedly sent 150,000 soldiers to its boundary in order to “be in a position to force a coup or force Kim’s hand” over fears any conflict between Trump and Kim will spark a wave of refugees from North Korea.
With South Korean forces readied for defensive action, increased naval force on the part of the Japanese and a nuclear powered U.S. aircraft carrier imminently arriving on Pyongyang’s doorstep, even China has put its bombers on “high alert.”
North Korea – Friend or Foe for China?
Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have often been underestimated and oversimplified, yet as Trump found out about the complexity of Chinese-Korean history during Xi’s state visit, “after listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.”
Locating its roots in the Korean War between 1950-1953, the joint forces of China and North Korea were successful in defending an attack by the United States, and following the signing of the Korean War Armistice in 1951, China provided extensive assistance to North Korea to supports its reconstruction.
The signing of the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, first in 1961 and then again in 1981 and 2001, is regarded as an almost legally binding agreement promising China’s commitment to its ally until at least 2021. The treaty stipulates that if either ally comes under attack, the other should provide immediate assistance, and if required military support.
Traditionally, in China, ties with North Korea have been referred to as “chun-chi xiangyi” or as “close as lips and teeth,” and indeed for the second half of the 20th century and continuing throughout the 2000s under Chinese Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Beijing has consistently defended its neighboring ally.
However, China’s tune has somewhat changed of late, with a less conciliatory approach being taken by Beijing. Perhaps of most significance, to this day Xi has had no desire to meet with Kim Jong-un, remaining the only Chinese president not to meet with the leader of North Korea.
Against an increasingly frustrating backdrop, and despite China’s multifarious support for the North Korean regime, which goes beyond historical ties and ideological preconditions, containing fragments of nuclear and geopolitical anxieties, domestic uncertainty and economic dependency, Beijing’s tolerance may have finally run its course.
A U-Turn in Chinese Foreign Policy
Until recently, China has been somewhat trapped between the possibility of a nuclear-armed DPRK or a reunified Korea with American troops situated on China’s border. Certainly, between these choices, the former has always seemed preferable to the political elites in Beijing.
Last September, however, marked an aberrant shift in relations. China uncharacteristically joined the 14 other members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in approving a common statement that agreed to take “significant measures” in response to the North’s missile tests. Beijing even went as far as to issue a statement “resolutely” opposing the test and urged North Korea “to abide by relevant resolutions from the UN Security Council.”
Following this, the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s older brother Kim Jong Nam – who previously lived in exile in China, under the eye of the Chinese authorities – was seen as a slap in the face to China by its ally.
As a result, in mid-February Beijing banned the import of coal from North Korea and most recently in the light of new missile tests, the Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, threatened that China could halt petroleum exports to North Korea, a move that would cripple the North Korean economy given it imports nearly all of its crude oil from China.
These actions cumulatively caused an unprecedented move from the KCNA news agency in North Korea, which dropped the use of the adjective “friendly” when describing its “neighbor” China.
In a China Daily editorial released on Sunday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China will not be misled by comments of various kinds and will not give up fulfilling its duties. A commentary in the Global Times stated that China would never help the U.S. with measure that would cause “the direct overthrow of the Pyongyang regime.”
Nevertheless, China is waking up to the reality that it is not obliged to defend North Korea by virtue of the fact that North Korea’s nuclear program breaches the mutual defense treaty. China is also aware that if North Korea continues its drive for nuclear weapons, it could incite a regional arms race and a nuclear-armed Japan would not be in China’s interest.
China is thus at a historic crossroads; it is nearing a time when it will have to choose between supporting an increasingly discourteous ally who both holds geostrategic significance in East Asia and legitimizes China’s system of governance, and collaborating with the U.S. on increasing sanctions on North Korea in order to maintain stability in the region – a core Chinese interest — but therein risk the possibility of an even more unpredictable regime with a vendetta.
Hope for Beijing in South Korean politics
China is sick and tired of being forced to defend its “ally” and has become increasingly irritated with the blatant lack of respect shown by Pyongyang. As a senior Chinese academic and foreign policy adviser with close ties to decision-makers in Beijing said recently, “We don’t like the North Korean regime or Kim Jong Un…but if [Pyongyang and Washington] continue to confront each other even emotionally, it gets in the way of solving the problem. China has suffered the most from the sanctions. We are making the biggest sacrifice. But the North Koreans’ primary concern is security, which can only be offered by the US.”
Hope may be on the horizon however. South of the border, in Seoul, the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye has created an opportunity for South Korea’s leftists, who favor a softer line on North Korea.
South Korea is to hold a special presidential election in May and there is a real possibility that Moon Jae-in, the leader of the opposition Minjoo Party, could win. In the event this happens, China could be in a position to influence the new government to back out of its deal with the United States on the Thermal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile defense system. China could also endorse Moon’s more conciliatory approach to Pyongyang, which in turn would put pressure on the U.S. to engage Pyongyang via diplomatic means.
In doing so, military conflict – including that of a nuclear war – and a subsequent migrant crisis, could be avoided. Whether tensions will bubble over between now and May is anyone’s guess, but until then, states around the world will be watching the actions of the Kim regime with a mixture of unease and trepidation.
James Tunningley is the Director of the Young China Watchers in London. He is on the Young Leaders Program at the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an Associate Analyst at Global Risk Insights and a Fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society. He previously held positions at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and the China-Britain Business Council. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford.