Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Nuclear North Korea

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There was a bit of optimism when North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power follow his father’s (Kim Jong-il) death late in 2011. Those hopes have all but faded from memory, as it has become abundantly clear that Kim Jong-un is no more of a friend to the West than his father was. Kim Jong-un’s rule has been marked with the same lack of transparency, human rights violations, and anti-western rhetoric that came to define his father’s rule.

Kim Jong-un has been arguably even more aggressive than his father when it comes to shows of military power. Despite warnings against further nuclear testing (after 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests drew economic sanctions from the UN), Kim Jong-un authorized and conducted a third nuclear test on February 12th, 2013.

The third test has drawn the attention of the international community. Even North Korea’s largest ally, China, has condemned such tests. Kim Jong-un seems undeterred, and has vowed for further nuclear test strikes and other shows of military power in the future unless UN sanctions are suspended.

The international community is not caving the King Jong-un’s demands to stop sanctions against North Korean. To the contrary, yesterday it was reported that the U.S., China, and the U.N. had “struck a tentative deal on a draft U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution that would punish North Korea for its third nuclear test, which it conducted last month.” These sanctions are expected to be a strengthening of previously imposed sanctions following the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

North Korea has replied to such threats, unsurprisingly, with more aggressive military rhetoric:

 “‘We will completely nullify the Korean armistice,’ the North’s KCNA news agency said, quoting the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Supreme Command spokesman.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

‘We will be suspending the activities of the KPA representative office at Panmunjom (truce village) that had been tentatively operated by our army as the negotiating body to establish a peace regime on the Korean peninsula,’ KCNA quoted the spokesman as saying.

‘Related to that, we will be making the decision in parallel to cut off the Panmunjom DPRK-U.S. military hotline.’”

While the hotline has never been used during times of diplomatic tension, it’s suspension is a symbolic move to cut off communication with the United States. By cutting off communication, Kim Jong-un is making it clear that he has no intentions of negotiating a nuclear disarmament with the United States or the “Western world”. (The U.S. is currently working on similar negotiations with Iran as well, who at least on the surface appears to be a more willing negotiating partner than North Korea).

Less symbolic, and more overtly aggressive, is the claim that North Korea will nullify the Korean armistice in response to more severe UNSC sanctions. If the armistice is nullified, North and South Korea would technically be at war, meaning that even the smallest act of aggression by either side could explode into all-out war on the Korean peninsula. The Korean peninsula is currently a “powder-keg”, but even more alarmingly, it is a “nuclear powder-keg”.

Such a war would have serious geopolitical implications, as the U.S. is an ally of South Korea while China is an ally of North Korea.

China has, so far, played the role the international community would hope it plays in the current Korea situation. By openly condemning North Korean nuclear tests, and apparently agreeing to stricter sanctions against North Korea, China has signaled it is willing to put pressure on its ally to ensure regional stability.

The issue with China, as always, is can we take China at its word? China’s own lack of transparency continues to hinder its own accession as a true world power, while simultaneously depressing the standard of living for the average Chinese citizen. China has talked the talk, but will it walk the walk? Will China really remain tough on North Korea, or is it simply telling both sides what they want to hear?

China has openly defended tyrannical dictators, such as Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, on grounds of “national sovereignty”. While this does not amount to a lack of transparency (as China along with Russia have openly vetoed UNSC intervention in the Syrian civil war), it does show that Chinese leaders allow themselves a certain amount of moral flexibility when deciding who to align themselves with.

China’s lack of transparency, and history of supporting questionable leaders (in the spirit of fairness, the U.S. has backed some questionable leaders in the past as well), casts doubt on whether China means what it says regarding North Korea. Chinese weaponry was recently found on board an Iranian ship; if China is supplying Iran weapons, then China is directly responsible for subverting UNSC sanctions against Iran. If this is the case, why should we believe that China will remain true to its word on sanctions against North Korea? (Not to mention that Iran has become a known supplier of arms to African and Middle-Eastern conflicts, meaning China could be playing a prominent if indirect role in regional instability in these volatile regions).

Perhaps China is for real in its condemnation and proposed sanctions against North Korea. Perhaps the idea of a nuclear power so close to China’s own borders has prompted China to take a tough stance against North Korea in order to protect regional stability as well as its own national security interests.

One thing is certain—the U.S. and the “Western world” need China to take a leading role in demilitarizing North Korea. China, as an ally to North Korea, has the means to influence Kim Jong-un’s decisions in a way that Western powers cannot.

China is at a bit of a crossroads itself. With new leaders coming into power, there is hope for greater transparency, economic reform, and a more responsible foreign policy that could help China gain legitimacy in the international community. China is not North Korea; its economic growth is much more dependent on international trade and therefore global security. China has signaled it will increase its military capabilities going forward; hopefully it will use its military and diplomatic position to promote global security along with its own interests.

The lack of transparency by The People’s Republic of China has made its words cheap—we must see through China’s actions that it is serious in its stance against a nuclear North Korea. China’s opponents will point to subversion of the Iranian sanctions as a reason that China cannot be trusted as a world power. Tension in North Korea provides China with an opportunity to change its image and position in the world.  How China performs in de-militarizing North Korea will go a long way in determining its role in the international community going forward.

In a recurring theme here at Normative Narratives, we will continue to discuss Chinese-American relations. Is China a friend or foe?–time will tell.

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2 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: Nuclear North Korea

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