Monday, May 17, 2010

Sucks to be Kim

Two bits of North Korea-related news before I head off to bed. First it appears that China's premier may have rebuffed the Kim Jong-il's request for aid, which had the Dear Leader heading back to Pyongyang in a huff, without checking out the Shanghai Expo or the Guangzhou karaoke scene.

From the Joongang Daily:
China told North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during his recent visit that it will respect international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang and refused to provide extraordinary economic assistance, an informed source here told the JoongAng Ilbo.

According to the source, the Chinese government’s position prompted Kim to cut short his stay in China.

“At the luncheon between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Kim on May 6, the Chinese government informed the North that China will not provide aid outside the framework of the United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang,” the source said.
Bloomberg also has the story, which is basically a report on the JAD story.

If this is true, that's quite a game-changer. It could signal that Beijing is growing tired of Pyongyang's antics, and perhaps North Korea crossed a line by committing an act that could lead to real military confrontation, something China would prefer not to see. I'm not holding my breath that China will follow any UNSC sanctions to the letter, though, as Beijing might prefer to find some wiggle room in the sanctions regimen rather than seeing the DPRK collapse and taken over by an ally of the US.

The second story is about two North Korean patrol boats that may have deliberately crossed the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border that North Korea rejects but which South Korea enforces religiously:
In an apparent attempt to highlight the disputed border in the peninsula’s western waters, North Korean patrol boats crossed the inter-Korean maritime border twice Saturday night and retracted after warning shots from a Southern ship. ...

According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a North Korean patrol boat approached the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea, at 10 p.m. on Saturday. The South Korean Navy patrol sent a warning to the ship by radio, and in response the North’s boat accused the South’s patrol of having violated its territorial waters.

The North Korean boat continued to descend and crossed the Northern Limit Line at 10:13 p.m. despite repeated warnings, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After staying in South Korean waters for about 30 minutes, the ship went back at 10:43 p.m., the military said.

Another North Korean patrol boat, according to the military, crossed the border at 11:30 p.m., despite the South Korean Navy’s warnings. After a second warning was sent, the South Korean Navy fired two warning shots and the North Korean ship retreated at 11:39 p.m., the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
South Korea's military is in a precarious situation in which a major provocation — the deliberate killing of dozens of sailors — has yet to be met with retaliation, and this could prompt North Korea to keep testing the waters, so to speak, to see how far they can go before they get a reaction.

And it does seem a reaction is what they want, if the goal is to make the North Korean public feel threatened from without so that they will be distracted from the problems within. If North Korean sailors are blown out of the water, the ruling elite may get what they want.

Northcorea has always been at war with Southkorea.


  1. Given that the American and Chinese economies are so interlocked, wouldn't it make more sense for the Chinese government to stop supporting the Norks? Do Cold War alliances really run that deep in the 21st century?

  2. It looks like the Chinese are giving up on North Korea... In which case one would expect the Norks to soften their stance a little and shoot for more aid. But of course, they've been conditioned to think that positive results come from provocative actions. I wouldn't be surprised if South Korea took a hardline stance in public, whilst shifting more money to the Norks in secret - in order to stop these little pushes and shouts from Kim & co. That sort of thing has kept the peace in other parts of the world, and it's probably what the Norks are aiming for.

  3. Matt, while the interlocking economies is a major factor in China's behavior (heck, in the behavior of most any country whose economy is so dependent on trade), China is also motivated by a long-running, deep-seated need to protect its homeland with a buffer zone it controls. Look at the territory where Han Chinese are indigenous and compare that with the territory of the PRC. Even Manchuria, right on Korea's doorstep, was not Han Chinese.

    This buffer maintenance is an overriding factor, up to the point where the buffer itself is stable. Torpedoing the Chonan may be an intolerable sign of instability on the part of that buffer, and that's what Beijing is trying to figure out.

  4. KRD, North Korea could do as you suggest — soften their stance (or appear to do so) and shoot for more aid — but the justification of the elite's entire existence depends on being in conflict with some outside power (hence the ham-handed 1984 reference).

    That means, I think, that they cannot soften their stance too much. Pyongyang could easily return to their Cold War ways whereby they play Pyongyang and Moscow off each other.

    It's rather convenient for Pyongyang that Moscow is only a pretend democracy right now, and because of its own nationalistic narrative (in the face of losing prestige and dropping in stature) it is willing to behave like a totalitarian dictatorship again. If North Korea can find something it has that Russia wants, it simply has to shift its focus from Beijing to Moscow and, voilà, it has found a new sponsor.

    This would let Beijing off the hook in terms of North Korea's bad behavior (as long as no fallout affected any of China's interests directly) while maintaining a physical buffer against the US and South Korea.

    Seriously, it is clearer and clearer that the Cold War has never been over on the Korean Peninsula: all the same players are in their original corners.

    At any rate, I don't think President Lee is going to shift any money to North Korea. I think he's itching for a chance for a pounding on North Korea that's below the threshold of inviting a major strike back at South Korea.

  5. Whatever happens, I'm not entirely sure that we'll know about it as part of the general public. North Korea is trying to show its power and Seoul is trying to calm things, but what really matter is what goes on behind closed doors.

    You raise an interesting point about Russia - I always forget to include them in my considerations of the whole issue. I'm fairly well versed on Russian history prior to 1989, but I really don't know where they stand now.

    I do think, however, that Kim Jong-il is creating a fuss (as usual) for the purpose of drawing aid. In public, the South and America will come out and declare sanctions and whatnot, but I really think that behind closed doors they'll be doing whatever it takes to keep Kim quiet. Kim's childishness could cost South Korea a lot of money. A LOT. A few million in his private bank account would be nothing compared to the losses Seoul would make if the North continune their provocations.


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