Over the Fence
On 21 December, another North Korean soldier successfully crossed the Demilitarized Zone and defected to South Korea. The location of the defection has not been given but it was not at the joint security area of Panmunjom.
The defector had been manning a North Korean guard post from which he escaped under cover of a thick fog. Both sides fired warning shots, but no one was injured. The North Koreans did not fire at the defector… they evidently could not detect him in the fog.
Avoiding loss of face has become as important as other national interests in the Korean missile and nuclear crisis. This item is a commentary on remarks to the South China Morning Post by retired Chinese foreign ministry official Yang Xiyu,
Yang Xiyu is a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies. Previously, he was in charge of Korean peninsula affairs at China’s foreign ministry from 2004-05 and also was involved in the six-party nuclear talks. He is one of China’s top experts in Korean and US affairs.
Yang told the South China Morning Post that China would never accept North Korea as a nuclear power and that Pyongyang’s recent diplomatic slur had been humiliating for China.
The diplomatic slur is Kim Jong Un’s refusal to meet Chinese senior party official Song Tao, who traveled to Pyongyang as the Special Envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping. This was the most recent in a series of actions by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that caused China to lose face.
Yang continues, “The deterioration of bilateral ties is rooted in the widening divergence on the nuclear issue. It is because North Korea changed, not China. The problem is that the once shared goal of China and North Korea to denuclearize the Korean peninsula had been shattered because Kim Jong Un reneged on the commitments made by his father Kim Chong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung,.”
The agreement to denuclearize the Peninsula was aimed at the US. The purpose was to induce the US to remove nuclear warheads that had been stored in South Korea for use in another Korean War. The Chinese argument was that the US cannot use nuclear weapons because North Korea had none.
Kim Il-sung often bragged, as a result, that North Korea would never acquire nuclear weapons. Again, that boast was aimed at the US. The US withdrew its nuclear weapons from Korea by November 1991. Chinese patient pressure worked to make the Peninsula safer, as the Chinese see it. It took 33 years and worked because a second war did not occur.
Kim Jong Un’s betrayal of that agreement with impunity is another humiliation for China. North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons undermined a Chinese policy position that worked for more than 60 years.
Yang continues, “Now, China and North Korea do not have a shared position on the nuclear issue, because North Korea’s current leaders have completely abandoned Kim Il-sung’s initiative,” he saidYang said that while China needed to be prepared for different outcomes, its “dual suspension” approach – which calls for the US and South Korea to suspend their joint military drills in exchange for North Korea suspending its weapons program – was still the right way to go.“If we step back from the goal of denuclearization now, it would be a failure of the will of our nation.”“If the international community allows North Korea to develop nuclear weapons it is a collective failure … More importantly, it is a huge threat to China’s national security. Therefore, on this issue, China has no room for compromise.”“Developing nuclear weapons won’t guarantee North Korea’s security, and will only make things worse,” Yang said. He also judged that if Kim wanted to maintain his regime, he would eventually have to move money away from developing weapons and channel it into the economy.
A third loss of face to China is that its client, North Korea, has refused to accept the Chinese proposal for stabilizing the situation – the suspension-for-suspension proposal. Even worse, the former client – North Korea– now poses a threat to China’s national security.
Chinese leaders cannot compromise on denuclearization because it would signify a failure of will at a time when China is asserting its global leadership role. That would be the ultimate loss of face and prestige.
The Chinese leaders would be disinclined to change their proposal in any case because of the successful precedent in which patience and steadiness achieved the removal of US nuclear weapons after 33 years. They know that patience will succeed again, given enough time and if war can be avoided.
Yang’s comment about the need to develop the North Korean economy contains the judgment that the Kim Jong Un regime must change its policies if it wants to survive. Chinese commentators seldom hint at regime survival in this fashion.
The idea of loss of face applies to the US-led alliance, but especially to North Korea. Kim’s dignity will not countenance a backdown. The vice marshals and the generals would likely find a Kim family member to replace him, should he try.
Finally, this is the third important comment on the complexity of the Korean nuclear and missile crisis that provides the public with background information on the issues. Yang’s comments are part of the psychological preparation for a possible escalation of the Korean crisis.