China nears point of no return with Kim

2013-05-22Asia Times

BEIJING - Does young North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun want a different future for himself and his country, or does he think he can spend the next half a century (his probable lifespan) imitating the threats, blackmail, and moves of his father, while physically resembling his grandfather?

Nobody is sure about the future, especially so far ahead. One can say, as the song goes, "Que Sera Sera", but it seems very unlikely that anybody will be able put up with this sort of North Korean behavior for that long.

Even China, Pyongyang's main source of support since the fall of the Soviet Union, shows growing irritation with the younger Kim. The Americans admit that Beijing is better at enforcing United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang, and more recently the Global Times, China's mouthpiece to the world for nationalist sentiments, reported that 16 Chinese fishermen were being held by North Korean authorities for illegal fishing in their waters, [1] although on Monday the official Xinhua news agency announced their release.

Therefore, it is improbable that Chinese patience - and that of every other country - will last many more years, certainly not long enough to let young Kim rest in peace on his deathbed 40-50 years from now. If, despite all appearances, he has some of the street smarts of his father and grandfather, he knows that he has to come to terms with giving up his arsenal or giving up his post.

He may want to do it in a way that guarantees his future, extracting as much as possible through blackmail. The fact that while the majority of the population is living in poverty, a growing minority is driving luxury cars, drinking Coca-Cola and visiting three amusement parks recently bought in from abroad proves that the old North Korea is already dying. We don't know Kim's plans, but unless he wants to die young, like a gangster in a movie, he must contemplate a peaceful way out.

The pressures on Kim do not only come from any personal consideration he may give to his own mortality, something many of Kim's age may be oblivious to, their minds blurred by testosterone and simple youthful stupidity. The main pressures now center of the new American doctrine called the "pivot to Asia" - though it could have been more suitably named a "pivot to China". China knows that North Korea is the key to breaking the pivot deadlock - and Beijing needs to weaken it to avoid being held back in the international arena.

At the moment, that need is not pressing enough to turn China completely against Pyongyang. Beijing fought against Vietnam in 1979 with America's blessing, only to find that Vietnam loathed China and a few decades later sided with America in containing Beijing. Who wouldn't bet that this time Beijing would face a similar outcome if it moved against North Korea? Moreover, there is a convergence of agendas in Beijing and Seoul, with neither willing to support 23 million starving North Koreans after a regime collapse.

Last but not least, there is Beijing's general insecurity about control of the general political climate in the world. That is, the US managed to fail brutally in Iraq, it has blown things up in Afghanistan, and it even has left neighboring Mexico under the threat of heavily armed drug lords - and yet it is still in control of the overall international situation. China, conversely, has moved over a billion people out of dire poverty, dramatically changed the ruling system, and never created any problem the size of Iraq or Afghanistan - but it is under constant scrutiny.

In this situation, if the US were to fail in North Korea, promising positive changes that actually made the situation turn for the worse - as happened recently in Egypt, Libya, and Syria - Washington would most likely still extricate itself from the embarrassing predicament, but China might be poisoned by it. In other words, the US can afford to fail in a single political move because it is in control of the general political agenda.

China can't afford to fail in any situation because it has little or no control over the general political climate. This begs the question of how China can gain some control of political climate. The US does it through a complex alchemy of internal and external political structures.

But aside from that, even the US can't afford to have a new political failure right now. In a recent essay, David Goldman explains how a bipartisan agreement between Republican neo-cons and Obama's new lefties created the present chaos in the Middle East that will haunt the region and the Mediterranean for decades. [2]

In a way, however, they could do it because other US officials were doing very well in North Korea. Although they did not radically solve the problem, they contained it in a way that, with hindsight, we can see should have also been used in the Middle East. We would all be better off with Saddam Hussein contained and feeling under threat than with the present rampant chaos in the region.

With historical hindsight of the past decade, the US officials in charge of North Korea deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for avoiding so far a mess of Middle Eastern proportions in East Asia. They will never get it, as the Nobel Peace Prize committee is probably keener on lending its ears to more fashionable - and emptier - promises of a denuclearized world.

This does not mean that young Kim should or will have his way by blackmailing right and left - just the opposite. America is ready to throw the world into chaos to follow its ideas in foreign affairs - ideas that sometimes turn out to be right - and China is slowing but very steadily moving into the US orbit.

As this happens, Beijing could feel more and more like it can take the risk of failing out with North Korea, and if this moves over a certain threshold, Pyongyang will be doomed. Young Kim will never know when this threshold has been reached, although we might be approaching it.

President Barack Obama will meet with President Xi Jinping June 7-8 in California, and to prepare for the meeting US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will travel to Beijing on May 26-28. Core to the meeting will be the issue of the Asia pivot - and thus of North Korea. If Obama and Xi reach an agreement, Kim will have no bargaining chips on the table, and he could well forget all his plans for old age. Therefore, this might be the time to talk and compromise, otherwise it could soon be too late.

1. North Korea still holds 16 fishermen, Qiu Yongzheng and Yang Jinghao, Global Times, May 20, 2013.
2. Dumb and Dumber (, by David P Goldman, The Tablet, May 20, 2013. (2013-05-22 Asia Times)


+MoreOther Commentary