Kim Jong-un’s Olympic olive branch to South Korea may illustrate the decline of US influence in East Asia, but it is wrong to assume that China is the beneficiary of these developments. Beijing has no better answers than Washington to deal with Pyongyang’s recalcitrance, and the Kim regime will not dance to any foreign power’s tune, certainly not China’s.
After the Olympic athletes have left Pyeongchang, the world is left wondering whether South Korean president Moon Jae-in will accept the invitation to visit North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, delivered by his sister Kim Yo-jong. To many observers, the inner-Korean entente appeared to be another snub to the United States in East Asia with the potential to open a dangerous rift between Washington and Seoul. But if you believe that China will be the main beneficiary of this new round of the great Korean game, think again.
Over the last decade or so, Pyongyang has been in the driver’s seat, bamboozling the United States and South Korea as well as China. In this way, the regime managed to survive, against the odds, extracting the resources it needed from the rest of the world, while pursuing its fiercely independent line and prolonging its bizarre communist family dynasty into its third generation. The Kim regime will dance to no-one else’s tune, not even China’s.
Pyongyang’s strategies have worked
From Pyongyang’s perspective, its strategies have worked just beautifully: they have given the regime the nuclear weapons and long-range missiles it felt it needed to guarantee its survival and to hold its own against a vastly more wealthy and successful South Korea. Pyongyang has defeated US efforts to end the Kim dynasty or at least to prevent it from developing a nuclear deterrent. The price it paid for its transgressions, economic sanctions orchestrated by the US government and the UN Security Council, has been limited: as the most recent sanctions report by an UNSC expert committee once more shows, Pyongyang so far has found it rather easy to circumvent most sanctions, and the remaining costs were born by the North Korean population, not by its leadership.
North Korea retains a sporting chance to shape the future of the Korean peninsula – and it becomes increasingly clear that it does not even rely on Beijing for that. China is widely believed to be the beneficiary of the relative decline of US standing and influence in East Asia in recent years – a decline now hastened by the doubts about America’s reliability as an ally under President Donald Trump.
Yet, when it comes to North Korea, the blessings of this decline for China may be rather mixed. For one, it puts the onus for dealing with the North Korean nuclear challenge and its aggressive policies squarely on China – and there are no signs that Beijing has any persuasive ideas, let alone good tools, to deal with a recalcitrant Pyongyang. China has done just enough on sanctions to be credible in expressing its displeasure with Pyongyang’s nuclear policies, but is has shied away from doing more. North Korea, therefore, has been able to expose China as a paper tiger.
North Korea will be China’s problem now
As the balance of power in East Asia shifts toward China, it becomes apparent that the North Korean nuclear program is directed not only against the United States, but at least as much against China. Pyongyang wants to secure the survival and independence of its regime and its international recognition as a power in its own right; it also wants to determine the future of the Korean peninsula against all machinations by outside powers, be it the United States, Japan – or China.
Pyongyang views the future of Northeast Asia in different terms than Beijing. Brotherly solidarity between two nominally communist political systems was belied by the brutality with which Kim Jong-un disposed of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who had been known as China’s man in Pyongyang. The fiercely nationalist Kim dynasty will not accept subordination under a China that wants to resume its perceived rightful place as the leading power East Asia. The fact that there are unresolved territorial issues between China and Korea around Mount Baekdu, a mountain considered sacred by Koreans and the Kim dynasty, just adds to the brew.
Most fundamentally, however, we have to expect to see two very different, yet fiercely nationalist regimes wrestle for control over the Korean peninsula. Whatever designs the leaders in Beijing and in Pyongyang have for Korea’s future – we can expect those designs to be difficult to reconcile. Tensions between China and North Korea can therefore be expected to rise as the great game over East Asia’s regional order enters its next phase.