BEIJING, PYONGYANG, AND SEOUL DO NOT REALLY WANT NORTH KOREA DENUCLEARIZED
“Xi Jing-pin allegedly treated Kim Jong-un to a \20 million (approximately US$187,000) bottle of Kweichow Maotai during the latter’s recent visit to Beijing. Xi called Kim to the Chinese capital and tried hard to bring him around to his way of thinking by displaying his power. Xi’s motives were obvious.”
So declared Hong Hyun, editor-in-chief of the Japanese-language Unification Daily, in a recent interview. (The Unification Daily is a newspaper published for Koreans in Japan.) Hong, who previously served as a minister at the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo, shared his views on the flashy diplomatic offensive the North Korean dictator has been staging since paying a surprise visit to the Chinese capital March 25-28.
But Kim has yet to commit himself to a denuclearization of his hermit kingdom as envisioned by the US and Japan. If things continue on like this, the May summit between Trump and Kim may not necessarily take place as scheduled.
As regards denuclearization, which is the prime agenda of the US-North Korea summit, the US and Japan take a position plainly different from South Korea, China, and North Korea. Washington and Tokyo want Pyongyang to abandon not only its nuclear warheads but all of its nuclear materials and nuclear-related facilities at the same time, demanding a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID). In other words, they want Pyongyang to completely give up its nuclear programs once and for all.
But that is of course not what North Korea desires, nor is it what China or South Korea wish to see happen. They are after a “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—not just North Korea. North Korea’s logic behind this is: 1) In case of an armed conflict on the peninsula, the US, bound by its military alliance with South Korea, likely would defend the South by attacking the North with nuclear weapons; and 2) therefore, North Korea will eliminate its nuclear weapons only when the US-South Korea alliance is dissolved in order to remove the nuclear threat from America.
China has no intention of depriving North Korea of its nuclear weapons. An editorial in the March 18 issue of the Global Times, the international edition of the official People’s Daily, clearly revealed its thinking.
The piece began by lauding North Korea right off the bat, noting: “For China and North Korea, the major test is how to keep their divergences over the nuclear issue in perspective. We must maintain friendly ties between Beijing and Pyongyang, and avoid the influence of the South Korean, Japanese and Western media.” The editorial stressed that the differences between Beijing and Pyongyang over nuclear issues were only a small part of their larger relationship. The daily followed up with a ridiculous compliment:
“North Korea is a respectable country. It is highly independent, which is rare in Northeast Asia. Its economic size is not large, but its industrial system is relatively complete, which is not easily achieved.”
China’s Tacit Approval of Pyongyang’s Nuclear Development
The Global Times further pointed out that “China and North Korea treat each other as equals and respect one another…For China, it is conducive to Beijing’s regional strategy and can make more room for its maneuvering in Northeast Asian affairs. For North Korea, it would be difficult and dangerous to cope with Seoul, Washington and Tokyo all alone. China’s support can defuse many risks.”
The editorial concluded that “no opportunist can harm Beijing-Pyongyang ties.” Kim Jong-un has been forced into a corner by the rigid international economic sanctions led by the US and Japan. One perceives the Chinese strategy is to shield and protect Kim Jong-un at any cost and increase and maintain Chinese influence over him.
Clearly discernible from the commentary is the absence of China’s intention to have nuclear weapons taken away from Kim. China certainly has expressed its opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons in words. On the other hand, it has given tacit approval to nuclear development by Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il. Presumably, Beijing is now assuming the same posture towards Jong-un.
China claims it opposes North Korean nuclear development primarily because it believes Japan will surely be spurred to go nuclear if the North does. We must see China’s opposition to North Korean nuclear development as a stance against possible Japanese nuclearization.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-in shares the same view. As chief secretary to President Roh Moo-Hyung, Moon was in charge of preparations for the 2007 summit between his boss and Kim Jong-il. A year before the summit, North Korea had conducted its first nuclear bomb test, attracting stern criticism from the international community. During the summit, however, Roh failed to mentioned a word about the nuclear test.
Meanwhile, Roh defended North Korea by declaring to the world: “North Korean nuclear development is intended for its own national defense.”
Moon, who worships Roh as his mentor, never calls it “a denuclearization of North Korea.” Instead, he always refers to “a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
“The stance is this different between the two camps—the US and Japan versus South Korea, China, and North Korea,” remarked Hong. “But in Japan the division is discussed in terms of the US, Japan, and South Korea pitted against China and North Korea. The Japanese people must realize that it is an illusion to view Moon as standing together with the US and Japan. Otherwise, Japan will make a serious strategic mistake.”
How will Trump react when he realizes China, South Korea, and North Korea can hardly be expected to denuclearize the North? In late March, he hammered out a series of hardline policies towards China, including the signing of a travel act involving Taiwan, which China claims as one of its prime core interests. Beijing is adamantly against any country interfering with Taiwan, which it claims as its territory. The Taiwan Travel Act makes America’s interchange with Taiwan easier, as it encourages visits between officials of the US and Taiwan at all levels.
On March 23, the USS Mustin entered China’s “territorial waters” off the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, another Chinese core interest, as the destroyer conducted “Freedom of Navigation” operations.
Waiting for Trump to Step Back
On April 2, China invoked a series of tariffs on American exports in retaliation for the tough duties Trump slapped on China for “stealing” intellectual property from American corporations. Simultaneously, secret bilateral negotiations are under way. If China makes major concessions, Trump may come to a compromise.
During his visit to the US in 2015, Xi sought to resolve American grievances over a huge trade imbalance in China’s favor by announcing China would purchase 300 Boeing aircraft. China is good at such tactics. This time around, it is possible that Trump could recognize North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons once China pledged that it would responsibly manage the North’s nuclear weapons and commit itself to offering certain conditions, including a promise that Beijing would not allow Pyongyang to possess ICBMs capable of reaching the US. This would be a real nightmare for Japan.
But now two new hardliners with hawkish views on North Korea—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Thomas Bolton—are aiding Trump.
“While terrified of America, North Korea can also see the current vulnerabilities of the Trump administration. Still trying to escape the impact of the Russian scandal, the administration may lose the mid-term elections. It would be hardly surprising for Kim to think that Trump will not be able to take tough measures against North Korea should he become a weakened president. But Kim of course has turned to China after being caught in difficult circumstances of his own. He has nowhere to go. While marking time, Kim obviously is waiting for the Trump administration to collapse under its own weight. I suppose he is now seriously trying to figure out how he can outlast Trump.”
It appears that “Emperor Xi Jing-pin,” who has managed to put himself on the road to a lifetime presidency, is also willing to take as much time as necessary for Trump to back down.
Such is the international situation Japan finds itself in today. The tough policy towards North Korea that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pursued with Trump has put Kim into a corner, compelling him to switch to a peace overture. So far, so good. But what should Japan do going forward?
Japan has no choice but to enhance its defense capabilities, while making sure to continue nurturing a strong cooperative relationship with the US. At a time when it is impossible to predict world developments, Japan must first and foremost commit itself to becoming a stronger and more stable democracy. We must be able to protect ourselves on our own. A revision of our postwar constitution is the first step towards that goal.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 798 in the April 12, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)