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Geopolitics

Why China Is Losing Patience With North Korean Posturing

Pyongyang has announced a satellite launch to honor Kim II Sung. China knows the real object of such a move is to reinforce the power of newly installed Kim Jong-Un. It will also raise the stakes in the region just when Beijing is badly in need of stabili

Soldiers guarding the North/South border in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (John Pavelka)
Soldiers guarding the North/South border in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (John Pavelka)
Cheng Xiaohe

BEIJING - On March 16, the North Korean government announced that in April it would launch the Light Star satellite to commemorate the centenary of Kim Il-Sung. This immediately triggered a strong reaction from North Korea's neighbors – and beyond.

The South Korean government believes that Pyongyang's satellite launching program is essentially a test of ballistic missile technology for a nuclear weapons delivery system. They consider it an act of provocation and a violation of United Nations resolutions.

Japan stated that if the launch vehicle passes over Japanese airspace or falls on its territory, it will command its Self Defense Forces to intercept the satellite.

Russia urged North Korea to halt such confrontation with the international community, and that it was time to give up everything that aggravates tensions in the region and creates obstacles to resuming the six-party talks.

The United States thinks that not only will this action be in defiance of the UN resolutions, but that it also betrays the agreement signed only just last month between the two countries.

And meanwhile in Beijing, the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun held an emergency meeting with North Korea's Ambassador to China to express his grave concern. He insisted that all involved parties remain calm and exercise restraint in order to avoid escalation of the affair. Subtle as it is, this meeting marks a shift in Beijing's posture toward Pyongyang.

Behind the defiance

So why is North Korea defying all the world powers with such provocations? We can outline at least four reasons:

First, it's to implement the "teaching" of Kim Jong-Il. As the third generation of North Korean leaders, Kim Jong-Un's authority is essentially inherited from his father. Thus to consolidate his power base, Kim Jong-Un has to follow the will of his father. According to the Yonhap News report, the elder Kim had decided to launch the satellite before he died, and had already informed the United States last December.

Second, the act is considered a way of building the prestige of Kim Jong-Un, an attempt to assuage the doubts about his ability and experience to govern given his youth.

"One can live without candy, but one cannot survive without bullets' was the ideological basis of Kim Jong-Il's rule. His son is to continue the "military-first" doctrine to defend his legitimacy and maintain the myth of his father as a strong man.

In short, the new leader of North Korea needs a real crisis to exercise and express himself. If Kim Jong-Un can withstand the international pressure and successfully launch the satellite, it would be the biggest achievement of his political career and foster a public image of brilliant experience and uncanny skills, and feed the public worship of him.

Third, the satellite is also about shifting attention from Seoul to Pyongyang. The Nuclear Security Summit this week in South Korea is being attended by 58 heads of state and representatives of international organizations. The fact that South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak is to lead the summit diplomacy and conduct top-level talks with a record breaking 25 heads of state is just what North Korea doesn't want to see. Needless to say, the meeting is a perfect platform for criticizing North Korea's nuclear program.

Fourth, this is a way to humiliate South Korea. There is no secret about the competition between the twin countries over launching satellites, which has evolved to become a key point of comparison of their respective overall national strengths. North Korea started the satellite launching program earlier, in 1998, whereas South Korea didn't catch up until 2002, with the cooperation of Russia. Although South Korean specialists have boasted that their rocket and satellite technologies are superior to those of the north, being comparable with France's Ariane rocket, their repeated failures have made them the laughing stock of the North Koreans.

In fact, it is said that North Korea has also failed its last two launches, and is hoping to succeed at this third attempt in order serve its national dignity.

China changes tune

In 2009, North Korea launched its second satellite and encountered great disapproval from certain countries. Somehow China took a very different stance at the time. China considered that the rocket and missile launching technologies were not directly connected. It believes that the nature of launching satellites for peaceful use in space is not the same as launching guided missiles or conducting nuclear tests. China opposed the UN Security Council passing a resolution, and was even less favorable toward implementing sanctions against North Korea.

However, China's has significantly changed its attitude towards the third North Korean satellite launching. The meeting of China's Deputy Foreign Minister with the North Korean Ambassador on the same day of the initial announcement is a clear sign that Beijing is not happy.

What this implies are the following: China opposes North Korea's satellite launching; China has taken stock of the international community's reaction; the peaceful stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia region must be safeguarded; North Korea should not undermine the current situation; all relevant parties, i.e. South Korea, the US and Japan, should stay calm and exercise restraint to avoid the escalation which may lead to an even more complex situation.

That China applies rare public pressure on North Korea is based, above all, on its own interests. Later this year, China will see a change in leadership, and does not need anything, domestic or external, to make things more complicated.

Besides, although China holds the view that every country, including North Korea, has the right to explore and peacefully use space, it nonetheless disapproves of North Korea taking such risks of provoking tension on the peninsula, and in particular after it has just signed the "2.29 Protocol" with the United States.

If China does not manage to restrain North Korea, it might lose control of the region in the long run. And in the wake of the new North Korean leader's arrival to power, it is important for Beijing to try to set the tone for the future development of the two countries' relations.

If North Korea stubbornly adheres to its original plan, China may be forced to translate its concerns and worries into concrete counter-measures.

All in all, North Korea is playing a dangerous game. But it seems difficult for the regime to back down on its public vow to launch the missiles. For the moment, it is yet impossible to predict the outcome of the situation.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - John Pavelka

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