News that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) on Sunday successfully tested its sixth hydrogen bomb, meant for long-term missile warfare, has brought speculations of a nuclear Armageddon back to the fore.
The missile test was condemned by Russia and the US. It also received strong rebuke from China, which is hosting the 9th annual BRICS Summit in Xiamen.
“The Chinese government resolutely opposes and strongly condemns this,” a Chinese foreign ministry statement said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting on the sidelines of the Summit, said they will “stick to the goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and keep close communication and coordination to deal with the new situation”.
But this new situation is trying patience in China, North Korea’s only real friend in the region.
The Chinese are angry at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for trying to upstage the Summit, and for putting them in an unenviable situation vis-a-vis the fiery chest-pumping antics from the White House.
US President Donald Trump immediately mandated the Treasury to draft a new sanctions regime to slap on top of the current one, all aimed at debilitating North Korea’s access to resources and its military prowess.
But he also took a Twitter swipe at China and South Korea. He threatened to stop conducting trade with China if it doesn’t do more to rein the North in, and mocked South Korea for wanting to return to use economics to lure the North away from nuclearization.
“South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” he Tweeted on Sunday evening.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in as recently as last week said that South Korean policies in dealing with the North need to return to the experiences of the past, specifically about 10 years ago when relations with Pyongyang appeared to be on the mend and both countries were involved in joint economic projects.
Unlike his predecessor President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted on corruption charges, Moon came to the presidency with a clear vision to repair ties with the North.
“If countries want to do business with the United States, they obviously will be working with our allies and others to cut off North Korea economically,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin toldFox News.
Sanctions upon sanctions
United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea already render most trade with the country illegal under international law. Numerous resolutions passed in 2006, 2009 and 2016 imposed a comprehensive arms and military embargo on the “rogue” state and any other activity contributing to its widespread violations of human rights.
Other resolutions since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 have also been geared towards suffocating the state’s foreign trade.
The most recent resolution, approved early August, targets North Korea’s primary exports – namely coal, iron and lead ores.
The US also implements a complex unilateral sanctions regime against the country. The The 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act requires the president to sanction entities and individuals found to have contributed to North Korea’s armaments or human rights abuses.
President Trump, now however, has even gone so far as to threaten cutting off trade with any country trading with North Korea, wagging his finger specifically at China.
This would jeopardize the economic might of both countries. The US trade deficit with China was $347 billion in 2016, meaning that it relied heavily on imports from the Asian mammoth state.
China has, however, for the past two decades and throughout the numerous standoffs between Pyongyang and Washington insisted that the six-party talks remain the best mechanism to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Trump has so far avoided diplomacy, insisting on one-upping North Korea through displays of force and militant posture. The US has pressured China into giving them a license to deploy THAAD anti-missile defense systems across the frontier of South Korea.
Both China and Russia are opposed to such deployment in South Korea and say it will fuel an arms race in the region.
And while China’s Foreign Ministry’s said Beijing “resolutely” opposed and condemned North Korea’s nuclear test, state media and government mouthpiece Global Times has repeatedly called for diplomacy in favor of a full embargo.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has also called North Korea’s nuclear maneuvers a “long shadow”, looming over more than half a century of peace. Instead, he insists that only through dialogue and negotiation could “the flame of war be put out.”
But as China tries to navigate an increasingly wrought tightrope between consolidating economic relations with the US and maintaining regional peace, the US seems to be gearing towards direct action.
This has also angered the Chinese. In several instances, they have blamed Washington for adding fuel to fire when it comes to dealing with North Korea.
The US has historically antagonized Pyongyang, ostracizing the “rogue” state from the international community, demonizing its leaders and victimizing its people. It has also held
North Korea, in turn, has done little to support its cause against the American military behemoth. The country has been turned into an international pariah by its rulers; not only sealing off the rest of the world, but entrapping its citizens within its own walls.
Isolated, but rogue?
Most of our information regarding the widespread, systematic and longstanding human rights violations stem from local defectors, which could be troublesome if one considers the less than reliable history of using such tools to justify foreign policy.
Nevertheless, North Korea’s restrictions on freedom of speech, press and movement are chilling. More so are its brutal campaigns on forced disappearances, indefinite detention of foreigners and public executions.
The UN Human Rights Commission has traced patterns of extensive torture, comprehensive imprisonment and internment camps and extermination that allegedly reach unprecedented levels in the modern world. In fact, many compare the present-day DPRK to Nazi Germany.
North Korea’s considerable military capabilities has so far spared it the type of “humanitarian intervention” and liberation campaigns which have reduced much of Iraq, Libya and Syria to rubble.
But as the US finds itself increasingly embroiled in the domestic affairs of other countries, the threat of a nuclear standoff looms over the world stage.
Promises of renewed military presence in Afghanistan, threat of full-blown intervention in Venezuela and displays of aerial force over the Korean Peninsula indicate a turn away from Trump’s campaign promise of isolationism.
‘Burned down every town’
But Pyongyang’s “unpredictable antics” vis-a-vis Washington may in fact be seen as studied and deliberate in light of both the US’ recent regime-change wars in Iraq and Libya and the legacy of the Korean War (1950-53), which divided the Korean people into their current formation.
Operating under the auspices of the then nascent UN, the US and its allies launched a merciless war campaign, resulting in the deaths of over 4 million people – half of whom were civilians.
“We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another… Over a period of three years or so, we killed off, what, 20 percent of the population?” – US Air Force General General Curtis LeMay.
In 1950, the US and its allies forced themselves into the war – despite Soviet vetoes – through unconventional legal and diplomatic maneuvering, devising a technique that would allow a General Assembly resolution to bypass a stalemate in the Security Council.
The Korean War is known as the “forgotten war”, but even those who remember it rarely recall the extent of the devastation wreaked on the peninsula.
By late 1950, B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons of napalm a day on the North.
General Douglas MacArthur would testify to Congress only one year after the war had started, saying:
“The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20 million people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children … I vomited.”
On the same week the world observed the 72nd anniversary of the US’ atomic bombings of Japan, Trump threated to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on the North Korean people followed by Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis’ warning that Kim Jong-un’s actions risked the “destruction of his people.”
It was that precise destruction of a people in 1953 that birthed the Korean divide and breast-fed the type of fear and paranoia we see in Pyongyang today.
US pressure on countries to end relations with the South Asian state is another symptom of its deliberate effort to stifle the country and stave off Kim Jung-un’s “madness”.
China is understandably angry at both North Korea and the US. It acknowledges that it is in a difficult position because Trump is not the type of leader who can be convinced to reverse course, or change tactics on what is the world’s greatest security threat at the moment.
A war on the Korean Peninsula would not only create a humanitarian catastrophe pushing millions of refugees across the shared border into China, but also devastate regional economies – Japan included.
It would strengthen Washington’s resolve to deploy further military and economic resources in China’s front yard – a nightmare scenario for the Russians as well.
China will likely continue to condemn North Korea’s persistent missile tests while it also rebukes the US for its belligerent rhetoric. Secretly, it will increase the economic stranglehold on Pyongyang, possibly expelling the 100,000 North Korean workers in China and cutting off the economic lifeline they provide.
But Beijing will also insist that multilateral talks are the only way out of the nuclear standoff.
The final declaration of the BRICS Summit in Xiamen summed it up:
We strongly deplore the nuclear test conducted by the DPRK. We express deep concern over the ongoing tension and prolonged nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, and emphasize that it should only be settled through peaceful means and direct dialogue of all the parties concerned.
By Mohamed Kouta for The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies