Normative Narratives


Leave a comment

Conflict Watch: The Obama Ultimatum


To say North Korea’s recent actions and rhetoric have been anti-American would be an understatement. Within the past few months Kim Jong-Un has launched a nuclear test strike, cutoff phone lines with the U.S. and South Korea, barred South Korean workers from entering an industrial complex bordering the two Koreas, stepped up its military capacity, suggested countries shut down their North Korean embassies for the safety of their diplomats, and vowed nuclear strikes on the U.S. and its allies.

Much of this is just tough rhetoric, a young leader trying to show he can “rule with an iron fist”, that he is able to rebuff “western interests”, and will not have his national sovereignty challenged.

Experts agree that North Korea could not strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons. More immediately at risk would be South Korea, Japan, and other pacific island allied states. This is alarming for the U.S. as well, who operates a close to 30,000 troop force in South Korea. South Korean has responded with it’s own stern warnings to North Korea, that it will “strike back quickly” if the North attacks. Japan has recently begun ramping up its military capabilities partially in response to North Korean rhetoric. Factor in China’s proposed military expansion, and we have a full blown arms race in Asia.

This is not an issue of China versus Japan, as both sides are essentially on the same side. The Chinese government has recently expressed dismay towards its allies in Pyongyang, agreeing in principle to tougher U.N. sanctions after North Korea’s most recent nuclear test strike.

The U.S., seizing onto this opportunity, has proposed what I call “the Obama ultimatum”:

“The Obama administration, detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea, is pressuring China’s new president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the regime in Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.”

“’The timing of this is important,’ Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, said in an interview. ‘It will be an important early exercise between the United States and China, early in the term of Xi Jinping and early in the second term of President Obama.’”

“In Beijing, officials said Mr. Kerry also wants to reinvigorate the dialogue with China on climate change… A week after Mr. Kerry’s visit, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will spend four days in China to try to improve communication between the American and Chinese militaries.”

“’What we have seen is a subtle change in Chinese thinking,’ Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, said in a speech Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The Chinese now believe North Korea’s actions are “antithetical” to their national security interests, he said.”

This article seizes on many issues brought up at Normative Narratives involving U.S. and Chinese cooperation on issues concerning the “global commons” (environmental, security, etc.). It also highlights the potential for closer Washington-Beijing relations as two supposedly progressive leaders take the helm of the first and second largest economies in the world.

But there are some issues holding back U.S.-Chinese relations. Issues of trust between the two superpowers exist; cyber-attack accusations have flown from both governments in recent months. Also, there are factions within China who believe it is in China’s best interest to have an anti-Western power in the Korean Peninsula. Some believe that if China came down hard on North Korea, even so far as to push for a reunification of the Korean Peninsula at some point in the future, this would bolster U.S. influence in the region and diminish Chinese influence.

And it is exactly because of this point that I like “the Obama ultimatum”. If China’s greatest fear is increased American military capacity in the Asian Pacific, Obama has just offered Xi Jinping a surefire way to check U.S. military capacity in the region.

Obama has essentially put the ball in Jinping’s court. The next move belongs to China. Will they rebuff the American offer in an attempt to show solidarity with North Korea and protect the interest of “national sovereignty”?

It makes little sense to think they would; when you consider the growth and development of China, there is no question as to which country, between the U.S. and North Korea, is a more important partner. Factoring in Japan’s stance and it makes little economic or military sense for China not to align itself with “western interests”.

Nothing should be taken for granted; historically nations have been known to do things against their economic interests in the pursuit of strengthening their political ideology. But in today’s globalized economy, where the political economy intersection is so prevalent in mainstream political thinking, it would be very surprising to see China not at least attempt to comply with Obama’s offer.

Enhanced by Zemanta


2 Comments

Conflict Watch: Nuclear North Korea

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta