By Francesco Sisci
Politics in North Asia, which also impacts the United States, seems set on a new path following the recent assassination of Kim Jong-nam, elder brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. No definite conclusion has yet been announced by the police in Malaysia where the assassination took place, but all points to North Korea. It looks like Kim Jong-nam was killed by agents sent by his young brother with the apparent goal of bolstering Kim Jong-un’s hold on power by eliminating a potential challenge.
Shortly after the assassination, Beijing cut all imports of coal from North Korea. Coal is one of the major exports for the “hermit kingdom”, although with spring coming, coal consumption in China is sharply declining and it is unclear whether this measure will hurt Pyongyang badly. It is also not clear what motivated the latest economic sanctions against the old ally. For decades, since the war in the peninsula in the 1950s, China and North Korea have said their relationship was as close as lip and teeth: without lips (North Korea), the teeth (China) would be exposed and endangered.
Chinese officials claimed the coal sanction was in response to the missile test the North Koreans fired during US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis’s February 2 visit to Japan. In any case, the assassination did not help Pyongyang’s cause and all of this is quickly altering the political chemistry of the region. Before the missile test and the assassination, South Korea’s public was fairly evenly split into two camps on how to handle ties with Pyongyang: those who wanted to engage North Korea peacefully, usually on the left, and those who wanted to take a more forceful stand, usually on the right. This division could tip the balance of the presidential election scheduled for later this year.
The position on North Korea has serious and immediate repercussions for China. South Korea in recent months has lost its patience with the North and it deployed a new American missile defence system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD). This is officially aimed at the North, but it clearly can also be used against China.
Seoul in turn decided on THAAD for many reasons, including out of frustration at Beijing’s inability to rein in Pyongyang. If China cannot get the North to pursue reasonable politics and give up its wave of threatening nuclear and missile experiments, then the South has to rely more on American military protection. In the same way, the US felt that if China was unable to control Kim, it had to take steps to guarantee the status quo of the region.
An electoral victory of the left could reopen a discussion on THAAD, something that with a new right-wing president is more unlikely. The assassination of Kim Jong-nam now casts a whole new spell on South Korean politics. It reinforces the chances of the right, but it also makes very difficult if not impossible for the left to think of engaging the North or withdrawing THAAD.
The new Chinese sanctions, whether caused by the test or the assassination, then imply the beginning of a possible U-turn in Beijing’s attitude toward the North. While so far Beijing has pushed for more understanding of the North, now it seems to realise the necessity of scaling up its pressure. Pyongyang might sense it, as for the first time it lashed out at China, saying the old ally “is dancing to the tune of the US”. America, for its part, cancelled a scheduled meeting after the assassination.
This change of heart in Beijing may open new channels of communication for Washington and Seoul on more coordinated policies toward the North with China. With less backing from China, North Korea may decide to buckle and give in to demands from the outside world or it may decide to up the ante, daring the whole planet to attack. A military solution against the North is difficult not because of its missile or nuclear arsenal, but because Pyongyang has about 10,000 missiles pointed at Seoul, which would wreck the South Korean capital before the North could be overtaken.
Yet the assassination may change feelings in China. Beijing’s preference would be to keep on the same path. It is very hard to pressure Pyongyang into something and it is also hard to think of taking out the North Korean regime because the South doesn’t really want to reunify and a united Korea poses all new challenges to China, Japan and also the US in the region.
But can Beijing still work with a ruler who goes as far as to kill his own brother abroad? North Korea is not new to terrorist attacks overseas. In 1983, it organised the attempt in Rangoon against the South Korean president and in 1987 it planted a bomb on a Korean Airlines flight. But those were the last days of the Cold War and it was all against the old, traditional enemy, the South.
Now times are radically different and young Kim has killed his older brother, thus proving he is capable of anything – even lobbing a dirty bomb to Tokyo, the American west coast, or China. Missiles are not the only course of action. North Korea has in the past hired criminals, mainly Chinese or Japanese, possibly of Korean descent, to carry out dirty work. The same could happen again now.
(China’s President Xi Jinping)
The question is can Beijing still be confident it can control in general terms Pyongyang? The preferred answer should be “yes,” also because with the growing friction with the US, it would be convenient for China to be able to play the North Korea card. But what if this card refuses to be played and turns against the player? And what if, especially in times of tension, it would be better for China to offer the US a North Korean bone to prove good faith in a future political dialogue involving China’s maritime borders?
It will be hard for Beijing to make up its mind in such short time on such an important issue, but at least the new Chinese sanctions keep the channel open with South Korea, where the assassination turned the public more against the North and in favour of THAAD. Moreover, the assassination brings up all kinds of questions about the stability of the North Korean regime. Why did Kim kill his brother? Why did he feel threatened? Is the regime now stronger or weaker? And most importantly, who feels sure about any answer regarding the super secretive North?
This creates greater political uncertainty in the region and South Korea, Japan and the US may already be thinking of new steps to hem in Pyongyang. Without China’s active cooperation, these steps, like THAAD, can easily have a double edge, against Pyongyang and against Beijing.