North Korea, a country of some 25 million impoverished people and a puny economy, wants to be counted amongst the nuclear powers of the world. A few days ago, it did another important step on this dangerous path. Pyongyang has now an impressive array of rockets and seems to be firmly on the way towards creating a nuclear warhead that can be fixed on a rocket. Of course, news about this most self-secluded country in the world is rare and cannot be confirmed by independent sources on the ground. We cannot know, how advanced the nuclear technology of the North Koreans is. We also cannot know how reliable and effective the various North Korean rockets are. One may speculate about the dimensions of the North Korean nuclear threat. The important thing is that it is here, with repercussions not only in North East Asia, but also beyond.
A number of questions call for answers. First, why is a country which cannot nourish its people and which a few years ago had a massive famine, investing gigantic resources into the development of rockets and nuclear bombs? Secondly, why is Beijing not able or not willing to reign in the North Koreans? Thirdly, how can the world get out of this very dangerous impasse?
North Korea has a regime, which knows no parallels elsewhere in the world. When the world has to deal with Venezuela, it knows from other cases like Cuba or Nicaragua how Latin American caudillos react. When the world has to deal with Syria, it can draw on experiences with other Arab countries. But North Korea is truly unique. It is in fact, a monarchy with a Stalinist apparatus of oppression and with a communist economy.
At present, the third generation of the Kim family is in power. The world knows little about Kim Yong Un, not even his exact date of birth. There were speculations how this young man would win control over the security apparatus and the army. Up till now, it seems that with the help of senior family members, he has established himself as the undisputed leader. In the logic of the North Korean power system, to have launched rockets and to have executed a nuclear test against overwhelming international pressure and opposition is in itself proof of a “capable” leader. Furthermore, Pyongyang has seen what happened with other regimes such as Iraq or now Syria and is of the opinion that with a nuclear weapon the country will be safe from regime change.
During the Cold War, North Korea had strong economic, political and military support from the Soviet Union. With its disappearance, Pyongyang has been left with no other option than to lean on the People’s Republic of China. This is not altogether a comfortable situation, as there are historic tensions and inflicted wounds between the Koreans and the Chinese. It is evident that the North Korean regime could collapse within a very short span of time, if it would not receive substantial material support from Beijing, notably food grains and petrol. China is, of course, worried about the regional implications of an escalation in North Korea’s nuclear programme. It is concerned that South Korea and Japan will follow suit if they see their national security threatened by the North Korean atomic weapons. That is why in its appeal to the region and to North Korea in particular, China calls for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Today this goal is farther away than ever.
China, as the only ally of the North Koreans, has been pressing them to not only abstain from provocations, but also to modernise their economy along the Chinese reforms. On both issues, it has failed dismally. North Korea may be poor and isolated, but it has one major trump card towards China. If the regime collapses precipitously, there will be chaos in the immediate neighbourhood. Millions of impoverished North Koreans will stream across the borders to South Korea and China. In the Northeast of China, this could lead to serious disturbances. Already Koreans in small numbers are not welcome in China. Furthermore, Beijing fears that a sudden reunification of the two Koreas will lead to the American influence once again reaching up to the North, the Chinese-Korean border.
As long as China does not participate in international sanctions, these are pretty ineffective. In the past decades, there has been solid isolation of North Korea without notable effect. Once again, the UN Security Council is calling for further sanction. While in the case of Iran financial pressures and a weakening of the currency seems to have some effect, there are no such options in the case of North Korea. Pyongyang does not export commodities that are in demand on the world market. It basically needs the scant hard currency resources it gets for the military and to keep the oligarchy of party apparatchiks and generals in good humour with the luxury goodies that the west produces, which again it can procure through China. Under these circumstances, as long as Pyongyang does not receive a kind of non-aggression pact from the US, it will not bend to international pressure.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)