Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Breaking ranks on North Korea

Despite worldwide condemnation of North Korea’s latest and most dangerous nuclear test, China and Russia have declared their opposition to sanctions and called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, reports Khaled Dawoud


Breaking ranks on North Korea
Breaking ranks on North Korea

UN Security Council members spared no words on Monday in strongly condemning North Korea’s sixth, and most advanced, nuclear test. However, there was clearly no appetite for a new round of harsh sanctions proposed by US President Donald Trump, including cutting off all oil and other fuel supplies to the isolated nation.

China and Russia, the two countries with the closest ties and most influence on North Korea and who also yield veto power at the Security Council, called upon the US to look for a diplomatic solution distinct from the inflammatory rhetoric used by Trump, including threats of “fire and fury” and the readiness to consider “all options” including the use of nuclear weapons.

The latest escalation in the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear tests came on Sunday when Pyongyang announced it had conducted a sixth nuclear test that it claimed was of a hydrogen bomb. The claim has not been independently verified, but seismological data indicated that the weapon was the most powerful ever to be detonated by Pyongyang.

North Korea claims it now has the capability to mount a thermo-nuclear weapon on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the United States.

It has test-fired a number of missiles this summer, including two long-range ones in July and an intermediate-range one in August that overflew the Japanese island of Hokkaido. South Korea has claimed that the North is making preparations for another ICBM test.

Speaking in China on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the escalating crisis over North Korea’s weapons programme risked developing into a “global catastrophe.” He also cautioned against “military hysteria” and said that the only way to resolve the crisis was through diplomacy.

He warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had calculated that the survival of his regime depended on its development of nuclear weapons. Kim had seen how Western intervention in Iraq had ended in the overthrow of former president Saddam Hussein after which the country was ravaged by war, Putin warned, and he was determined not to suffer the same fate.

“Saddam Hussein rejected the production of weapons of mass destruction, but even so he was destroyed and members of his family were killed,” Putin said. “The country was destroyed, and Saddam Hussein was hanged. Everyone in North Korea knows that.”

In his remarks during the closure of the BRICS Summit in Beijing that hosted the leaders of Brazil, India, China and South Africa, Putin said that while Russia condemned North Korea’s latest actions imposing sanctions would be “useless and ineffective.”

He noted that “Kim would rather starve his people than see his regime overthrown.” “They will eat grass, but they will not turn away from the path that will provide for their security,” Putin said.

On Monday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Kim was “begging for war” and urged the UN Security Council to adopt the strongest possible sanctions to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the US was privately discussing a draft resolution proposing cutting off all oil and other fuel supplies to the country. Trump had already warned of freezing US economic ties with any country that does business with North Korea, a threat that was immediate denounced by China.

Roughly 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade and nearly all of its imported energy supplies come from China. China’s overall trade with the North was up significantly in the past 12 months, and it has long feared that an oil cut-off would lead to the collapse of the regime.

Haley’s comments on Monday were also notable because while they called for a last stab at diplomacy, they also ruled out the one diplomatic option considered to be the most viable first step – a Chinese and Russian proposal for a “freeze” on the North’s nuclear and missile testing in return for some kind of freeze on United States military exercises.

She said that at a time when the North was threatening the United States, it would be unwise to trim back its training with allies.

In response to the latest tests, the South Korean navy announced on Tuesday that it had conducted live-fire drills off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula to check its “immediate operational readiness” after the country’s air force and army had conducted their own joint drills. It had already mounted a huge show of military force on Monday.

Monday’s meeting of the Security Council was the second time in less than a week that the most powerful body of the United Nations has met to discuss North Korea and the tenth time it has done so this year.

Last month, the council tightened sanctions against North Korea, unanimously adopting a resolution that Haley called “the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation”.

While Japan and South Korea joined the condemnations of the North, there were clear tensions with Washington, their closest ally and the provider of military protection since the end of the Second World War.

Trump criticised South Korea on Sunday for practising what he described as the “appeasement” of its defiant neighbour. Even before taking office, the US president had warned Seoul that it should pay more for US military protection and had threatened to scrap a joint free-trade agreement.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has long been a proponent of more dialogue with North Korea, whereas Trump said recently that “talking is not the answer.”

The South Korean government also did not seem to speak with one voice in response to the nuclear test. Testifying before the National Assembly on Monday, South Korean Defence Minister Song Young-moo said he had told his American counterpart James Mattis in a meeting last week that the United States needed to send long-range bombers, aircraft carriers and other strategic forces to the Korean Peninsula more often to reassure the South Koreans.

He said he had told Mattis that many in his country were calling for the reintroduction of American tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. The weapons were removed from the South by the United States more than 25 years ago.

Moon’s office said his government remained opposed to the reintroduction of American tactical nuclear weapons, saying that doing so would make it more difficult to persuade North Korea to give up its own nuclear weapons.

China, however, has seemed to be in the most difficult position of all in the current round of confrontation over North Korea’s behaviour. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping did not mention his country’s unruly neighbour at all in his closing address at the BRICS Summit, or in earlier speeches, although a communique issued by the group expressed deep concern and called for the crisis to be settled peacefully.

But the test of a hydrogen bomb by North Korea could not have sat well with China’s leader. “The Chinese have been pressing North Korea very hard not to stage a nuclear test,” said Mike Chinoy, a former CNN Beijing bureau chief and the author of Meltdown: Inside the Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.

“For the North Koreans to deliberately choose a few hours before a very important summit meeting when Xi Jinping was hosting the leaders from India, Brazil and South Africa – a big, big deal for the Chinese – is a deliberate poke in the eye from North Korea,” Chinoy added.

Many Western analysts believe that while Beijing is frustrated with North Korea, it still prefers a nuclear-armed Pyongyang for two reasons. It fears that the collapse of the regime could lead to a refugee crisis on its doorstep, and more importantly it believes that North Korea acts as a strategic buffer between China and South Korea where the US maintains a large military presence.

After Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, Trump tweeted that “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.”

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