Peter Sylvestre's picture

ARE the three great regional powers, the US, China and Russia, being bested and manipulated by Pyongyang’s Kim Jong-eun . . .

SEOUL­ — Irrespective of whether North Korea actually detonated a hydrogen bomb on January 6 (its fourth recorded nuclear test) at the Pyunggye-ri Nuclear Test Site (its yield was two kilotons less than the test in 2013), Pyongyang’s dedicated pursuit of a nuclear capability designed to strike at the United States is creating a security conundrum for China, ostensibly its strongest ally.
China’s role is one that Russia has appeared eager to usurp (as previously reported in ATI), and Russia, too, is becoming ensnared by North Korea.
Signs that North Korea is imminently gearing to test (for the first since 2012) a long-range missile (if satellite imagery of the Tongchang-ri test site as reported by Japan’s Kyodo News Agency is any indication) is likely to further compel a foot-dragging China to support the United States, however reluctantly (and ineptly) to impose further sanctions on a regime already self-exiled from the mainstream global community.
The narrative of a recalcitrant China was again on display in talks in Beijing on January 27 between US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Wi. They discussed the latest North Korean developments, but the scanty reporting available suggests that the talks were a failure, as usual.
It is this point which drives the rest of this narrative — that the inability of the regional powers to come to agreement on managing North Korea is creating a lose-lose situation for both the US and China.  
When Pyongyang’s alleged H-bomb test was first announced, China’s “firm opposition”, as reported in China’s Xinhua News Agency, was terse: “We strongly urge the DPRK side to remain committed to its de-nuclearisation commitment, and to stop taking any action that would make the situation worse.” For the record, Russia also expressed alarm, declaring the test a "threat to national security" and later adding "clear violation of international law" to its rhetoric.
Here lies the conundrum for China (and Russia).
On one (simplistic) level, it may seem desirous (for China and Russia) to have a small irritating regime draw the attention of the US to itself, leaving China and Russia to pursue whatever strategic objectives they may be intent upon.
However, North Korea borders both China and Russia, and North Korea seems intent on drawing US military power into the region.
The North Korean shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010 drew the carrier USS George Washington into the Yellow (West) Sea as an intended explicit signal to China: “Either you rein in North Korea or we will!” was the message (this reporter’s words).
Even before the DPRK gave signs of launching another missile, indeed even before the purported H-bomb test, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander-in-Chief of the  US Pacific Command (PACOM), made his position clear. Asserting that North Korea was his greatest concern, he urged deployment in South Korea of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system. THAAD is a controversial issue in South Korea, while both China and Russia obviously oppose such deployment.
China is vociferous in its opposition to THAAD, but so far has been unable (or unwilling) to offer a requisite quid-pro-quo to counter arguments for its deployment.
Compounding the conundrum is — or at least should be — the concerns of both China and Russia that North Korea’s drive to develop its own strategic nuclear force (which will constrain these two powers as much as it disconcerts the US) may induce Japan and South Korea to do the same.
South Korea’s conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper calls for just this in a blunt January 31 editorial. “The US has passed the buck for taming North Korea to China, and China is doing nothing,” it says.
“Seoul now faces a real need for public discussion of the development of its own nuclear weapons . . . Seoul can no longer sit idly by as the Six-Party Talks lead to no results and Washington and Beijing are busy blaming each other for their diplomatic failures.”
A reading of the South Korean and Japanese press coverage offers two significant subtexts. In the South Korean press, that South Korea must develop a nuclear deterrent to offset the North.
In the Japanese press, that Seoul will use the latest test as an excuse to develop an independent nuclear capacity as originally pursued by Park Chung-hee, father of current President Park Geun-hye — and that Japan should do the same.
As January 2016 drew to a close, a columnist in the Japan Times wrote: “Japan possesses large quantities of plutonium, and is seen as being able to have nuclear weapons at any time … Japan has long had the ambition and the capability to develop nuclear weapons. What it has lacked is a pretext for doing so. North Korea’s recent test offers Japan a great opportunity.”
In short, the three great regional powers, the US, China and Russia, at best continue to show impotence in the face of a 30-something year old suryong (leader), and at worst are bested and manipulated by him.
The best and the brightest of all three “powers” know this, but have proven themselves incapable of dealing with him. Either that, or they reject this narrative. Time will tell (and let history judge).

* Peter Sylvestre is ATI Correspondent in Seoul