Time for China to pre­pare for the worst over N Korea

Today - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS - JIA QINg­gUo Jia Qing­guo, Dean of Pek­ing Univer­sity’s School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, is a mem­ber of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee and the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence.

Re­cent mis­sile and nu­clear tests have re­turned North Korea to the cen­tre of in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts, th­ese tests demon­strate that Py­ongyang not only pos­sesses nu­clear weapons, but also mis­siles that can reach the west coast of the United States. It should not be long be­fore North Korea de­vel­ops the ca­pa­bil­ity to minia­turise its nu­clear weapons and fit them to its in­ter­me­di­ate­and long-range mis­siles.

As pre­dicted, the US re­ac­tion was quick and strong. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump threat­ened that the US will rain “fire and fury” upon North Korea if it launches an at­tack.

For China, this turn of events has height­ened the ur­gency of ad­dress­ing the North Korean nu­clear is­sue. Among other things, it has in­creased the like­li­hood of a US pre-emp­tive strike against North Korea.

And, even if the US re­frains from do­ing so, harsher sanc­tions as well as more fre­quent and larger mil­i­tary ex­er­cises could sharply in­crease the chances of a mil­i­tary con­flict and of a cri­sis erupt­ing in North Korea.

China has al­ready stepped up its ef­forts to im­ple­ment UN sanc­tions against North Korea. Im­por­tantly, Bei­jing has sus­pended coal im­ports from North Korea, which is gen­er­ally be­lieved to be a key source of in­come for Py­ongyang.

China hopes that North Korea will see the light and ac­cept China’s “two sus­pen­sions” pro­posal, mean­ing that North Korea would sus­pend nu­clear and mis­sile tests in ex­change for sus­pen­sion of joint US–South Korea mil­i­tary ex­er­cises.

Bei­jing be­lieves this is the only way to cool down the sit­u­a­tion and pave the way for re­sum­ing di­a­logue and ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the two sides.

But North Korea has largely ig­nored China’s ef­forts. Py­ongyang has not only con­tin­ued with mis­sile tests, but also pub­licly vowed to de­stroy Guam with nu­clear weapons if the US uses force against it. The omens of war on the Korean Penin­sula loom larger by the day.

When war be­comes a real pos­si­bil­ity, China must be pre­pared. And, with this in mind, Bei­jing must be more will­ing to con­sider talks on con­tin­gency plans with the coun­tries con­cerned.

The US and South Korea have long tried to per­suade China to hold talks on con­tin­gency plan­ning. So far Bei­jing has re­sisted the idea for fear of up­set­ting and alien­at­ing Py­ongyang. But, given re­cent de­vel­op­ments, Bei­jing may have no bet­ter choice than to start talk­ing with Wash­ing­ton and Seoul.

The first is­sue that Bei­jing may wish to talk about is who would con­trol North Korea’s nu­clear weapons arse­nal. Af­ter all, th­ese weapons are too dan­ger­ous to be left in the hands of a North Korean army caught in po­lit­i­cal chaos.

On the one hand, China may not be op­posed to the idea that the US mil­i­tary do the job since this would pre­vent pro­lif­er­a­tion. North Korea’s nu­clear weapons are of no tech­no­log­i­cal value and it would be very costly to take care of them.

On the other hand, China may have a prob­lem with the US mil­i­tary cross­ing the 38th par­al­lel, re­viv­ing mem­o­ries of the Korean War in the early 1950s. On bal­ance, China may wish to take care of the nu­clear weapons it­self.

The US may ac­cept this for the rea­sons of non-pro­lif­er­a­tion and cost. The US does not have the same his­tor­i­cal bag­gage against the Chi­nese mil­i­tary tak­ing such ac­tions in North Korea.

The sec­ond is­sue Bei­jing might wish to talk about is how to deal with the ex­pected refugee prob­lem. Bei­jing may ac­cept the sug­ges­tion that the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army march across China’s bor­der with North Korea to cre­ate a safety zone in or­der to build shel­ters for refugees and stem a mas­sive refugee in­flow into China’s north-east.

The third is­sue Bei­jing may wish to talk about is who is to re­store do­mes­tic or­der in North Korea in the event of a cri­sis. The South Korean forces? The UN peace­keep­ing forces? Or some other forces? China would prob­a­bly ob­ject to US forces do­ing the job be­cause that would re­quire the US mil­i­tary cross­ing the 38th par­al­lel.

The fourth is­sue Bei­jing may wish to dis­cuss is the post-cri­sis po­lit­i­cal ar­range­ments of the Korean penin­sula. Should the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity set up a new govern­ment for North Korea? Or should it en­dorse a UN-spon­sored Penin­sula-wide plebiscite on re­uni­fi­ca­tion in prepa­ra­tion for a united Korea?

Fi­nally, Bei­jing may also wish to talk about the re­moval of the Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fence (Thaad) sys­tem from the penin­sula when Py­ongyang’s nu­clear pro­gramme is gone. Bei­jing be­lieves that the sys­tem un­der­mines China’s se­cu­rity and has urged the US and South Korea to re­move it.

Wash­ing­ton and Seoul are likely to ac­cept the idea. Af­ter all, both have re­peat­edly claimed that the de­ploy­ment of the Thaad sys­tem is noth­ing more than a re­sponse to North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grammes.

As be­fore, China does not wish to face a cri­sis sit­u­a­tion in North Korea be­cause it threat­ens a nu­clear war, po­lit­i­cal tur­moil, a mas­sive refugee prob­lem and other un­pre­dictable neg­a­tive con­se­quences.

But as the sit­u­a­tion on the Korean Penin­sula de­te­ri­o­rates, China has no al­ter­na­tive but to get pre­pared. EAST ASIA FO­RUM

When war be­comes a real pos­si­bil­ity, China must be pre­pared. And, with this in mind, China must be more will­ing to con­sider talks with con­cerned coun­tries on con­tin­gency plans. Sin­ga­pore has pro­duced many stu­dents who have gone on to top classes at rep­utable uni­ver­si­ties over­seas. How­ever, while we con­tinue to push the bar higher, we must re­main aware of those oth­ers who are find­ing it dif­fi­cult to make the grade. DaviD Leo • 44

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