East Asia | China flexes leadership muscles to curb the North Korean regime

China flexes leadership muscles to curb the North Korean regime

Michael Brady April 22, 2017 3:02 AM (UTC+8)
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Tension on and around the Korea Peninsula has abated for the moment, but it’s likely to ebb and flow for the foreseeable future. After several anxious weeks of saber-rattling by North Korea and the United States, China appears to be moving to rein in the reclusive Kim Jong-un regime.

President Donald Trump ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and a naval strike group to be diverted to the peninsula after North Korea continued its missile tests earlier this month. The armada includes two guided-missile destroyers and a cruiser. Two destroyers from the Japanese navy are also reported to have joined the Vinson group.

US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said: “North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behavior. This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear-capable regime. The president has asked to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat to the American people and to our allies and partners in the region.”

As expected, Pyongyang condemned the move and warned: “We will make the US fully accountable for the catastrophic consequences that may be brought about by its high-handed and outrageous acts.”

Tensions between the two countries further escalated last weekend after reports suggested North Korea was preparing for its sixth nuclear test. Images of the Punggye-ri nuclear-test facility indicated increased activity, including water being pumped out of tunnels. This, along with increased truck movements and construction, suggested a nuclear test was being planned.

North Korea’s economy dependent on China

China has taken steps to rein in Kim Jong-un. In February, Beijing announced it would suspend coal imports from the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] for the rest of the year. This would be a severe blow to the country’s already fragile economy. It’s estimated that 90% of North Korea’s economy is dependent upon China. North Korea exported about US$1.2 billion worth of coal to China in 2016. Beijing’s efforts to pressure Pyongyang will eventually work if sustained for an extended period.

On 10 April, reports indicated that Beijing ordered 150,000 troops deployed along the border with North Korea. The contingent included medical units intended to address “unforeseen circumstances.” Some experts believe the move was in response to the potential of large numbers of North Korean refugees fleeing into China after a pre-emptive strike by the United States. But the move also signals another message: any further escalation by Kim could end with his ouster.

China has also exerted diplomatic pressure to reduce tensions. On April 14, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi stated: “The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering. If they let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this.”

It’s unclear what was specifically agreed to by President XI Jinping and President Trump during their summit in Florida earlier this month. However, there are signs that China’s attempt to rein in the hermit regime are taking hold. Beijing is exerting leadership by using its national authority, diplomacy, economic influence and military power.

Time will tell if these actions will eventually curb Kim’s appetite for acquiring nuclear weapons.

Michael Brady
LTC(r) Brady served as a career tactical and strategic intelligence officer for the United States. He was also the Director, PEOC at the White House under President George W. Bush. He is now a professor of intelligence and security studies at The Citadel.
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