Why China supports a defiant North Korea

The Hermit Kingdom is saber-rattling again. This time, Pyongyang vowed to “scrap” the 1953 armistice credited for six decades of uneasy peace on the Korean peninsula.

“The Korean Armistice Agreement is to be scrapped completely from today,” declared a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Supreme Command, on March 11. The KPA Supreme Command has also ceased all activities at its Panmunjom Mission and severed its communication hotline with the South, the only diplomatic channel of contact between the two Koreas.

“By scrapping the armistice,” says Cheong Seong Jang at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, “Pyongyang would be effectively refusing to recognize the DMZ. North Korea wants to show it can attack South Korea at any time – the chance for limited war has increased.”

North Korea’s Supreme Command then threatened that its “precision attack” weapons now have U.S. navy bases in Guam and Okinawa in their sights and will attack them if it is provoked. “The United States is advised not to forget that our precision target tools have within their range the Anderson Air Force base on Guam where the B-52 takes off, as well as the Japanese mainland where nuclear powered submarines are deployed and the navy bases on Okinawa,” the KFA Supreme Command spokesman declared on March 21.

The tension on both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the world’s last Cold War frontier, has risen to a new level since March 11. “North Korea,” writes Nile Bowie, an independent analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, “has bucked up its troops for ‘all-out war’ against its enemies and has threatened a preemptive nuclear strike against the U.S. and other ‘aggressors.'”

In response to Pyongyang’s threats of preemptive attack, Seoul has issued its strongest warning yet, “If North Korea attacks South Korea, then by the will of the Republic of Korea and humanity, the Kim Jong-Un regime will perish from the Earth.”

To walk the walk, South Korean and the U.S. troops have kicked off two large-scale joint military drills: the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve joint exercises. The Foal Eagle drills, a field training exercise involving 10,000 U.S. troops and 200,000 South Korean troops from their ground, naval and air forces, equipped with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, F-22 Raptor stealth fighters and B-52 bombers, will last until April 30. Separately, South Korean and U.S. troops also conducted a computer-simulated drill, the Key Resolve, from March 11-21, with more than 3,500 U.S. troops and 10,000 South Korean troops participated.

With tensions escalating on the Korean Peninsula, many North Korea watchers and policy advisors see the only power that might have some influence to broker an agreement and deescalate hostilities is China. During a rare joint appearance at Asia Society Texas Center on March 14, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker agreed the United States and China need to work out in advance on how to deal with the Kim Jong-Un regime, with Kissinger suggesting he thinks the Chinese are “more and more becoming ready to talk to us about that.”

But China is more the problem than solution.

China needs North Korea. China is using North Korea as a key geopolitical weapon against the United States and Japan as well as an indirect way to prevent the United States’ strategic advance in Northeast Asia.

This explains why, given the near universal condemnation on Pyongyang’s nuclear development, China’s bilateral trade volume with North Korea in the first half of 2012 increased to $3.14 billion, up 24.7 percent from the same period the year before.

This also explains why China is blaming the United States, Japan, and South Korea for North Korea’s hostility. In a recent editorial appearing in Beijing’s Global Times, the ultra-nationalist Chinese official mouthpiece made clear that “if the United States, Japan and South Korea promote ‘extreme’ UN sanctions on North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these resolutions.”

The view from Beijing is that China has much to gain from a defiant North Korea. As a result, “Beijing,” says Brett Shehadey of Asia Times, “will continue to serve as Pyongyang’s principal friend, backer, and banker no matter how difficult that arrangement might be for China.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.