North Korea is the last remaining communist state run on the Stalinist model. It has been at war with South Korea since the ceasefire that ended the Korean war. This morning North Korea threatened to end the ceasefire.
The relationship between China and North Korea is similar to that between the US and Israel. North Korea depends on China for financial assistance and to use its UN Security Council veto when sanctions are threatened, but refuses to take advice, let alone instructions, from Beijing. North Korea claims that this latest move is in response to planned military exercises in the South, but it seems more likely that it is being driven by a change in its relationship with China.
China has been frustrated by the North Korean regime for decades. North Korea is an economic basket case that China is obliged to support, or risk further influxes of starving refugees. China has traditionally considered North Korea to be a buffer zone separating it from the US-occupied South. The North Korean army looks like a formidable force on paper. But the invasion of Iraq rather strongly suggests that an army on the verge of starvation would not hold out more than a few weeks against a US invasion, without Chinese intervention. Rather than being a strategic asset to China, North Korea has become a liability.
During the Bush administration, a change in China’s position on North Korea was unthinkable. But with Obama re-elected to a four-year term in Washington, Chinese diplomats have been signalling a willingness to put pressure on their ally. They might even see encouragement in the outcome of the Arab Spring. From the viewpoint of Beijing, the US successfully liquidated the leadership of two tiresome client regimes without losing prestige or influence. China is believed to be considering allowing some form of sanctions against North Korea to pass the UN security Council.
Feeling threatened, North Korea is doing what it always does: acting out like a spoiled child. The last card the regime has left to play is to threaten a war with the South, that it would then threaten to escalate into a US-China war.
North Korea is playing a dangerous game. It may succeed in blackmailing China to continue to protect it in the UN Security Council. But the North Koreans might also succeed in persuading Beijing that the Kim Jong Un regime has become too dangerous, and has perhaps finally merited its own Asian Spring cleaning.