Will China be the saviour of the imminent US-North Korea war?

Published: May 3, 2017
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Jong-Un has matched Trump’s rhetoric that should the US attack his country, he might order his own pre-emptive nuclear attack with disastrous consequences.

The latest missile test that was launched by North Korea came at a tumultuous time. The United States (US) had warned North Korea that it will face grave consequences if it were to go ahead with a nuclear or missile test. In an apparent disregard to both to the US and the United Nations (UN), North Korea went ahead with its ballistic missile test. The fact that the missile exploded during take-off last Saturday is another story altogether.  

There is an imminent danger of the US launching a surgical strike on North Korea as it has refused to bow down to threats. It should be credited to Donald Trump that he has so far ceased from attacking North Korea in the hopes that China will be able to influence its neighbour into freezing its nuclear programme.

It appears that the Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, who is an egotist, paranoid, unstable and impetuous leader, has refused to listen to the counsel of the Chinese leaders. He is under the false belief that the possession of nuclear warheads and missiles would deter the US from launching any attack on his country. He has also sent out a warning that North Korea will launch a pre-emptive strike on the US if it dares to attack them.

It is true that the North Koreans are no match for the military strength of the US, but the most dangerous prospect of an attack on North Korea may force Jong-Un to launch a nuclear attack on South Korea. It is this prospect that has so far tied the US’s hands.

Moreover, one must realise that North Korea is no IraqSyria or Afghanistan. It possesses nuclear weapons; it has developed knowledge of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it plans to test soon. According to sources, North Korea has developed Taepodong-2, a long-range missile which can hit over a range of 8,000 kilometres, a distance that could put some US cities in grave danger. However, it is too risky to call North Korea’s bluff.

The only way forward is for the US to diffuse the already charged atmosphere in the region by putting pressure on China. Although Trump had initially criticised China for the trade imbalance and for not playing a positive role in ending the Korean crisis, things have taken a turn. After Trump met President Xi Jinping, there is an appreciation for the Chinese position from his end. The Chinese president has tirelessly worked to draw out tensions by being in constant touch with Trump.

Jinping has so far refrained from threatening North Korea with economic sanctions because China has been using North Korea as a buffer to counter the US hegemony in the region. China has already expressed its unhappiness over the deployment of the anti-ballistic missile system, US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), in South Korea. Moreover, as 80% of North Korea’s trade comes from China, and if China decides to impose economic sanctions like cutting of oil supply, it may severely impact the North Korean economy. This is the leverage China should use to force the hands of North Korea. In the past, China has advised the North Korean leader not to divert its precious resources in developing its nuclear programme, and instead to spend wisely on the well-being of its citizens, but this advice had fallen upon deaf ears.

It now lies in China’s hands to adopt an assertive approach (the threat of economic sanctions) if North Korea does not agree to a transparent ‘denuclearisation’ programme.

Jong-Un is using the nuclear programme to legitimise his leadership over his people. Furthermore, he probably suffers from the misconception that the possession of nuclear weapons would ultimately guarantee the safety of his country. He has so far ignored the prospect of his country being obliterated if the US does carry out its threat. Jong-Un has matched Trump’s rhetoric that should the US attack his country, he might order his own pre-emptive nuclear attack with disastrous consequences. With all his false bravado, Jong-Un knows that if China decides to cut off trade ties, his economy will come crashing down.

If China does decide to exert its influence, as a reciprocal measure, the US should immediately stop the supply of THAAD missiles to South Korea. This will create a positive influence on China. It is because of US’s role in South Korea that China has been using North Korea as a buffer in the peninsula. Moreover, China is also uncomfortable with over 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea.

In conclusion, the only country that has any semblance of influence over Jong-Un is China. Moreover, with Jinping and Trump’s successful meeting, China can play a major role in diffusing tensions. For this, the US should allay China’s fear by avoiding a confrontational approach and instead partner with it to bring peace and stability in the region. A tall task, but China has the capability to influence North Korea.

K S Venkatachalam

K S Venkatachalam

The author is an independent journalist and political commentator. He tweets as @Venkat48 (twitter.com/venkat48)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.