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Hither and Yon

China’s loud signal to North Korea reminded Kim Jong-Un he’s not his own man

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
Conflict with South Korea is a gambit that North Korea cannot afford.
Much as leader Kim Jong-Un may have yearned to humiliate the South by ordering gunfire against the mega-loudspeakers broadcasting music, news and invidious commentary into the North from below the Demilitarized Zone, he does not have the resources, food, fuel and ammunition to risk a second Korean War.
That’s because the North’s lone “ally,” China, had to have said “no.”
The Chinese, providing North Korea with 90 percent of its minimal fuel requirements, plus more than half its food, has ultimate sway and say over Kim Jong-Un’s outrageous fantasies.
No, the Chinese can’t get him to knock off his nuclear and missile programs, but we may be sure they have discouraged him from a fourth underground nuclear test and may have told him that missile tests are a waste of much needed resources as well.
It was in that spirit that Chinese forces, in the midst of the latest “crisis” between the two Koreas, staged a show of force in Yanji, the city near the Tumen River border with North Korea.
The spectacle of Chinese armor parading through the streets while Chinese troops advanced toward the North Korean border had to have set off alarm bells in Pyongyang.
No, the Chinese certainly were not there to reinforce the North Koreans as they did during the first Korean War. No, the Chinese were not going to invade. Yes, the point was to intimidate the obstreperous North Koreans if they got any foolish ideas about Korean War II.
Much as the North Koreans hate to be under the thumb of China, they can hardly expend precious fuel on military maneuvers when the Chinese can turn off the spigot at any time. The Chinese, moreover, would surely refuse to increase supplies needed in case of war. It was fine for Kim Jong-Un to engage in big talk about a “quasi-state of war” and place his troops on “full battle alert,” but those were hollow words for shock effect.
North Korea’s ability to give an impression of a non-existent threat reached its apotheosis in those wild reports about 50 missing North Korean submarines. Submarines run on precious fuel too. No one knew where they were, but my guess is they were playing hide-and-seek to fool everyone into thinking they presented a hidden menace while South Korean and U.S. planes and ships scoured the skies and seas looking for them.
The North Koreans do deserve credit for creating a sense of crisis, but what do they get from going to the brink and pulling back? One answer is the Chinese may reward the North with increased shipments of food, perhaps trade and aid. North Koreans, perpetually underfed and malnourished, with the notable exception of Kim Jong-Un, are suffering more than usual now after a poor harvest in June.
In talks that dragged on for three days, the South Koreans may also have promised some rewards if only the top North Korean officials across the table would say they were sorry, however reluctantly, for having set mines that blew off the legs of two South Korean army sergeants. The North Koreans did, begrudgingly, express “regret” ― less than a heartfelt apology but “meaningful” enough for the South Koreans to claim a victory.
Did the Chinese actually tell the North Koreans, through diplomatic and other contacts, that they had better settle on some face-saving deal that would satisfy the demands of both sides? We still don’t know the full story behind the talks and their outcome.
In fact, North Korea has reason to be concerned about relationships with China’s leadership. South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye has been to Beijing three times and is going next week as China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Kim Jong-Un has not been to China since taking over after the death of his father in 2011. President Xi Jinping has rebuffed hints that Kim would like to meet him.
That’s in contrast to China’s hosting his father on several visits including one on which the young man accompanied him. North Korea’s acquiescence to the deal with the South has to be welcomed in Beijing. For China, the rewards are obvious. While South Korea courts China, North Korea counts on China for its existence.
Kim Jong-Un’s regime, without China, could not survive a sustained conflict with the South. U.S. and South Korean firepower, from land, sky and sea, would annihilate North Korean positions, as they did in the Korean War until China stepped in.
Kim won’t be in China for the 70th, but if he plays along without fomenting too many “crises,” he may yet find himself in the good graces of his benefactor.
Kim, like his grandfather and father, has to know that. No wonder he carefully managed the latest confrontation, escaping with face intact, awaiting the chance to stage the next faux crisis.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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