Saul Bedakker writes from Tokyo: China is frightened of North Korea. Japan is frightened of North Korea. America is frightened of North Korea and, naturally, South Korea is frightened of North Korea. (Not to mention that large parts of North Korea itself are frightened of it as well.)
What’s needed to fix the problem is Bibi Netanyahu, Prime Minister (for how long?) of Israel. Bibi needs to be told that a bunch of ayatollahs are now running North Korea and that Ahmadinejad is buying a retirement villa in a fancy district of Pyongyang, if such exists, and that should do it.
The reason for all the hand-wringing, especially in Beijing, the capital of until recently North Korea’s bestest friend, China, is the announcement that the North Koreans really cannot cope anymore with all those sanctions and so they’re about to carry out another nuclear test. With it goes the message that if that isn’t just the smartest way to tell the US, Japan, China and anyone else to shove their sanction regime up you know what then tell us what is.
What’s further caused the Far East flutterings is North Korea’s insistence that the proposed ‘high-level nuclear test’ is in defiance of Pyongyang’s ‘arch enemy’, the United States. The further flutter-factor is the fact that China, for the first time ever, has warned off North Korea and says it too will join in sanctions against what it thought was a pretty much under control client state. North Korea, it would seem, is no one’s client state.
This round of threats and counter threats started last week, after the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the launch by the North Koreans a few weeks back of a multi-stage rocket that many so-called experts have described as a prototype ballistic missile and therefore one that will eventually be able to carry a nuclear warhead.
The UN resolution piled on more sanctions. The UN is good at sanctions, but not good enough for the US. Washington threw in a whole lot more.
What did the North Koreans do? In a statement from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland came: ‘If the puppet group of traitors [South Korea] takes a direct part in the UN ‘sanctions’, the DPRK (North Korea) will take strong physical counter-measures against it… Sanctions mean a war and a declaration of war against us.’
The White House was in its They Don’t Frighten Me mode. President Obama’s likeable and sharp spokesman Jay Carney (once Washington bureau chief for Time magazine and a Russian speaker from Yale, so has read a lot of this stuff) had it about right when he said, ‘Further provocations would only increase Pyongyang’s isolation, and its continued focus on its nuclear and missile programme is doing nothing to help the North Korean people.’
Jay’s right on that last point. The North Koreans, so aid agencies tell us, are starving. Washington likes sanctions. So do North Koreans, according to their beloved chubby cheeked young leader, Kim Jong Un. Sanctions do not exist, but if they did they would keep them trim – ready to fight to the death. (Not his, theirs).
So what about China? Moderate stuff came from Beijing – at first. Let’s look at the long term interest and not get excited. But then came the punch-line: ‘If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance.’ That’s official and that’s new thinking. China would add its name to the sanction list.
It’s the most important statement that’s come out of the whole North Korean stand-off ever since the first nuclear test, albeit a bit of a bodge, took place in 2006.
China is in effect saying: we’re fed up with young chubby leader. We are fed up trying private diplomacy and getting nowhere and worse still, being humiliated because people say we don’t have the influence we once had. But there’s worse and sterner fears behind this Chinese change of tack.
Look at the border map of China. Its neighbours are Russia, India and Pakistan – each a nuclear power and each a spoken or unspoken threat. The other border is with North Korea. It is not in China’s interest to have her final neighbour (and the most unstable) as a developing nuclear weapons state and one that has insisted that once it gets the real magic mushroom business moving will be willing, nay, keen to demonstrate on some suspecting enemy.
And China particularly understands that North Korea is not simply a nasty. North Korea has watched first India, then Pakistan being told by the big guys not to develop nuclear weapons and when they ignored the advice and went ahead, what happened? Suddenly they’re no longer kicked around.
North Korea wants some of that respect. It wants it most of all. So listen out to what happens next when the underground monitors report the big bang from Pyongyang.
And someone else who will be watching is Mr Ahmadinejad. He wants that same respect, but he’s got Mr Netanyahu as a neighbour and from that guy, respect for Iran is hard to come by – until of course, Tehran announces it has a nuclear warhead.