China's Shift on N.Korea Brings Big Risks and Opportunities

      April 24, 2017 13:30

      China's state-run Global Times in an editorial a few days ago said a military intervention by Beijing would be "unnecessary" if the U.S. chooses to launch a surgical strike against North Korea's nuclear weapons facilities.

      The comments are being interpreted as tacit approval of a pre-emptive strike by the U.S. against North Korean targets, though the paper added that Beijing would ensure that North Koreans do not suffer a humanitarian catastrophe. That is a remarkable shift in China's position, since its troublesome alliance pact with North Korea from 1961 binds the two countries to help each other if one side comes under attack.

      In effect, the comments appear to be an ultimatum to Pyongyang against conducting another nuclear test. If North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pushes ahead with the test regardless, the chances are now much higher that the trigger-happy Trump administration will launch some kind of surgical strike on its nuclear facilities.

      Something seems to have happened when U.S. President Donald Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 7, and now Beijing appears is reviewing its North Korea policy.

      The Chinese government was also apparently shocked at the crude public assassination in Kuala Lumpur in February of Kim's half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who was under Chinese protection.

      Already Beijing seems to be turning off North Korea's oil supply. "As the upcoming nuclear test could potentially be hazardous to Northeastern China, sanctions imposed by Beijing within the United Nations framework will increase, thus dramatically decreasing the amount of petroleum exported to North Korea," as the Global Times put it.

      Gas stations in Pyongyang reportedly have limited the supplies of petrol and have drastically hiked prices. This means China has already tightened the spigot or has warned the North that it will do so soon.

      China probably intends to cut back on its oil supply to the North rather than shutting it off completely, but the move is nonetheless unprecedented and significantly up the pressure on the regime.

      "However, if US and South Korea armed forces cross the Korean Demilitarized Line in a ground invasion for the direct purpose of annihilating the Pyongyang regime, China will sound its own alarms and ramp up their military immediately," the Global Times added.

      That is a clear statement of the Maginot Line -- no ground forces on North Korea soil. But eventually the heavily armed border must come down and the Korean people reunified. It is only a matter of time until that happens, and not even China can do anything about it, even if it would prefer the peninsula to remain divided forever.

      Still, China's policy shift may not signal a fundamental change in the way it approaches North Korea, so Seoul should focus on keeping it on this track as long as possible.

      Seoul must seek to overcome the differences with Beijing over the stationing of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery here. The sole purpose of the THAAD battery is to defend the South against a North Korean missile attack, and Seoul bears China no ill will and has no intention of spying on its military maneuvers with the THAAD's powerful radar.

      Tensions on the peninsula have reached levels not been seen since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire. North Korea has lashed out against China, too, by touting its military muscle and may yet resort to a reckless provocation to mark the founding day of its military on Tuesday. With a regime that unpredictable, a massive strategic mistake cannot be ruled out.

      Unfortunately, South Korea is in no position to do much about it, heading essentially rudderless toward a presidential election. And the state of limbo may well continue after the May 9 election. The new president's first task must be to minimize any damage from these dramatic developments.

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