North Korea: Of troubled waters and oil

Once the 19th Congress of the CPC is behind us, Xi Jinping may look to strike a deal with Donald Trump by which China would completely halt oil exports to North Korea. However, Washington’s apparent belief that this would cause Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear aspirations may prove ill-founded.

[This article was originally published in the international relations journal Global Policy on 18 September 2017, ie before President Donald Trump's 19 September speech at the UN General Assembly during which he threatened to "totally destroy North Korea" .]

“The only satisfied party today is North Korea.”

Carrie Gracie, BBC News, 16 September 2017

Even a nuclear cloud can have a silver lining…

Take four world leaders at the heart of the crisis on the Korean peninsula: China’s Xi Jinping, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and the United States’ Donald Trump. Which of them is likely to be the least hacked off with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?

The answer, in my view, is almost certainly Mr Abe. Every missile and nuclear test which North Korea makes is surely taking us closer to the time when the Japanese Prime Minister sees his longstanding ambition of having Article 9 of his country’s constitution neutralised if not revoked completely and replaced with provisions which normalise Japan’s ability to protect its national interests through military means. Admittedly, this is something which Mr Abe himself may not be able to oversee from the Prime Minister’s office despite the recent (North Korea-driven) recovery in his approval ratings. For, as I noted in a recent article for The Global Lead, he faces a party leadership ballot in less than a year which seems almost certain now to be contested. If he were to lose, his successor as LDP leader and (in all probability, therefore, Prime Minister) may well be able to seize the moment even if he cannot. [Note: Since the original publication of this article, it has been reported that Mr Abe is considering calling a snap general election, possibly to be held on 29 October, which could see him seeking an explicit mandate of some sort relative to Article 9.]

…but not for China

The military normalisation of Japan is not something which Xi Jinping is eager to see, yet another reason why he is almost certainly the most angry of the four with Kim Jong-un. Indeed, if North Korea continues on its present trajectory, China may have to deal with something even more unwelcome, ie one or both of Japan and South Korea deciding t hat it too needs a nuclear deterrent.

This would come on top of an already long list of affronts which Xi Jinping has suffered at the hands of North Korea’s leader, notably:

  • The execution in 2013 of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Chang Song-thaek, who, among the hierarchy in Pyongyang, was the closest to Beijing;
  • The murder earlier this year of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam, at least s emi-formally under China’s protection;
  • On three occasions this year (so surely no coincidence) Kim Jong-un has done something to grab the international headlines as Xi Jinping was about to launch a big international moment, the most recent being North Korea’s sixth nuclear test just as China was about to open and host the BRICS summit;
  • A degree of general embarrassment on the international stage over China’s seeming inability to rein in its wayward ally; and,
  • Deteriorating relations with Washington, up to and including US secondary sanctions against Chinese entities allegedly doing business with North Korea — with a strong likelihood of more to come.

Limited options…

It isn’t that China isn’t trying. For sure, it is almost certainly not doing as much as it could (a point to which I shall return later); but it has undoubtedly been tightening the noose. Indeed, I have some sympathy with China’s clearly growing irritation with the US given the Trump Administration’s propensity for sending conflicting signals on North Korea, together with punishing China which has at least been consistent — as well as somewhat accommodating of Washington’s wishes — in its approach to the crisis. Indeed, I think we should take at face value China’s claim, reiterated again just last week, that it “will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state” — at least in principle even if putting this into practice is proving remarkably difficult.

Some will disagree with me but I do believe that, for now, Xi Jinping is indeed walking what has been described as “a tightrope” between North Korea and the US, trying to balance its desire to ‘manage’ its relations with the Trump Administration while avoiding precipitating regime collapse in Pyongyang which Beijing believes would risk two (from its perspective) highly undesirable consequences.

I am personally inclined to think that Beijing’s concern over a massive inflow of refugees from North Korea, the first of these potential consequences, is overstated. First, as long as the regime in Pyongyang is functioning reasonably well it seems to me to be unlikely that it would allow large numbers to leave the country; after all, we did not see significant flows triggered by a series of chronic food shortages and outright famines dating back to 1994. Second, if the regime were to collapse it does not seem to me to be by any means inevitable that large numbers would look to flee their homes into China. Third, even if significant numbers were to try to cross the border I would have thought that the PLA was well capable of turning most back.

However, I do think China’s security concerns over the possibility that, in the event of regime collapse and Korean reunification, it would find itself with US troops stationed on its border is worth examining. If one takes a ‘world view’ from Beijing it is easy to understand when one sees an arc of US allies stretching from Japan in the east to (for now, at least) Pakistan in the southwest why China already feels itself hemmed in by America. Coupled with the very firm belief of China’s leaders that the US is trying to contain China’s rise to what Beijing sees a s its rightful place in the geopolitical firmament, it follows that the stationing of US troops on the Korean peninsula on China’s border is simply not acceptable.

All this being said, my own view is that Beijing is overstating this risk too (albeit that I readily acknowledge that, if I were one of China’s leaders I too would want to err on the side of safety on this particular issue). Indeed, as I have been arguing for several years now, I think it very unlikely that Korean reunification would see US troops stationed on China’s border. South Koreans are, in my experience, remarkably relaxed about the threat posed by the North and tend to see the US military presence in their country as an imposition these days rather than a necessary protection against. The recent deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system (which many in South Korea believe is primarily to protect US troops, rather than South Korea per se) has deepened such sentiment. No doubt much of this is stirred up by pro-North Korea sympathisers and agitators; but it is still a potent reality. Furthermore, despite its longstanding alliance with the US, the reality today is that South Korea needs to be at least as mindful of its relations with China — a pragmatic sentiment which has likely been encouraged by Mr Trump’s oft-stated desire (which we cannot assume to have gone away despite his silence on the issue these recent days) to scrap the Korea/US bilateral trade agreement .

Thus, if peace, in the form of reunification, were to break out on the Korean peninsula I think it extremely likely that, far from allowing the US military to base itself on China’s border, the government of a united Korea would demand total withdrawal from its territory.

…until the Party’s (Congress is) over?

I have long argued that Xi Jinping will achieve most, if not all, of his objectives for the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) due to start on 18 October (a date on which we can reasonably expect another ‘show of strength’ from Kim Jong-un). But, having manoeuvred long to try to ensure a ‘good’ outcome, I am sure he is not about to jeopardise that at this late stage by doing anything which could leave him open to accusations to accusations by his political opponents of endangering China’s national security. Notwithstanding the case I have argued above, totally cutting off oil exports to North Korea would almost certainly leave him open to such accusations.

However, once the Congress is over and assuming that, as I expect, he further consolidates his grip on power, he may feel he has more scope for taking a tougher stance. Indeed, my sense that this may be so was further strengthened when I was in China earlier this month and witnessed first-hand the increasing number of calls in the press there for Beijing to adopt a harder line — something which would likely not be allowed to happen if it were not under serious consideration.

Consistent with this, I have not been alone in wondering whether Xi Jinping could make ‘a deal’ with Mr Trump, possibly if/when the latter visits Beijing later this year. The key is this: in return for China cutting off oil exports to North Korea entirely, Xi Jinping would ask Mr Trump to guarantee that, in the event of regime collapse and reunification, the US military would withdraw from the Korean peninsula. I have noted that some commentators have suggested that this would be a “secret” deal. Ideally, this would likely be the case. But I very much doubt that Mr Trump would be able to resist an early tweet on what he would proclaim as further evidence of his skill as a dealmaker.

Not least with this in mind, I think that such offer is one which Mr Trump could readily accept (indeed, he might even propose such a deal himself). Not only would it, in my view, reflect realpolitik, ie the Koreans demanding post-reunification withdrawal, but it would also be consistent with his pre-election pledge to pull the US military out if South Korea did not meet the full cost of the US security guarantees. Obsessed as he seems to be with his approval ratings, Mr Trump must be well aware that they tend to slide when he fails to deliver on his election commitments and to be boosted when he does deliver.

But what would happen if China did cut off oil?

So, is this the key to resolving the Korea crisis? Attractive though it may seem, I frankly doubt it.

First, I think that, though we cannot completely dismiss China’s concern over potential regime collapse, we should treat this as a low probability. After all, Kim Jong-un — by my estimation, a rational actor according to his own objective, ie staying in power — is likely to do whatever he needs to do to ensure that this doesn’t happen. This thought should be of some consolation to the Pentagon which is unlikely to welcome the idea of withdrawal from the Korean peninsula even in the event of reunification and may, therefore, press Mr Trump not to accept the sort of agreement with China which I have proposed (and, to be fair, US withdrawal would be a big regional ‘win’ for Beijing).

Second, it is a reasonable assumption (shared by North Korea experts) that Pyongyang has stockpiled sufficient oil, at least to keep its military going, for some time to come. The most likely result of China cutting of oil imports therefore seems to me to be that Kim Jong-un continues with his missile and nuclear programmes regardless, even if it means that he has only enough oil to keep his military and other key parts of the country functioning at the cost, potentially, of yet more extreme suffering among much of the population (for which he would likely hold the international community responsible rather than his own actions).

Third, it is possible that the North Koreans might be squeezed sufficiently to come to the negotiating table, presumably being obliged to freeze their missile and nuclear programmes as a prerequisite to talks. Such talks might result in agreement of some sort. But history suggests that, sooner or later, Pyongyang would fire up its programmes again.

Binding the three preceding points is the consensus among the relevant experts that, based on what he has seen over the past 15 years or so in Libya and Iraq, Kim Jong-un firmly (and not unreasonably) believes that he needs a credible nuclear deterrent as an insurance policy against a potential US attempt at regime change in Pyongyang. Furthermore, his belief has probably been strengthened by Mr Trump’s oft-stated desire to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran despite Tehran’s total compliance with its terms. Whether one believes the Iran agreement to be a good one or not, the willingness/desire of the current US President to walk away from it (as he did from the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) strongly suggests that the word of ‘America Inc’ is not its bond.

No game-changer?

In short, for all the pressure the US is exerting on China (and Russia) to stop sending oil to North Korea entirely, although it may slow down his progress I think it is very questionable whether this would deflect Kim Jong-un from his determination to acquire a genuine intercontinental nuclear capability.

In other words, Mr Trump would still likely be faced, possibly within the next 12 to 18 months with a choice between ordering military strikes or learning to live with a nuclear North Korea after all. I think that he would probably opt for the latter given the probable consequences of war on the Korean peninsula; but I would certainly not rule out military strikes particularly if, as top psephologist Nate Silver has recently suggested, the US President sees it as pivotal to his re-election prospects in 2020.

Alastair Newton

Comments (5)
No. 1-5

Thanks for all the comments; appreciated. Re Kat26's questions, the closest US military bases would then be in Japan, I reckon (certainly closer than Guam) - Okinawa alone is 'home' to around 30,000 US military personnel. As for 'peaceful reunification', it is very hard to put a probability on this. It looks to be low and, if it were to happen, a long way off; but few saw German reunification happening as swiftly as it did even after the wall came down in November 1989. As for Mr Trump's statement at the UNGA, commenting on a BBC News article on Facebook on Wednesday, I wrote as follows: 'With all due respect to Stewart Patrick, quoted in this article, I don't agree that we can dismiss Trump's threat to "totally destroy" North Korea as "implausible". Rather, I think we should be asking whether Trump is implicitly saying that he would be prepared to nuke North Korea - possibly even preemptively. If you think this sounds "implausible" please recall that Candidate Trump reportedly asked his team on several occasions why the US could not and did not use its nuclear weapons; and note that Trump's approval ratings go up when he delivers on his pre-election rhetoric, no matter how horrendous. This may sound all too 'Wag the dog'; but I simply don't think one can or should rule out the possibility that Trump could order a nuclear strike against Pyongyang.'


so if Korean reunification were to happen, and the US is not welcome, is the closest presence then in Guam or other? Do you see the chances of a "peace" reunification- given the steps needed to occur- as a medium percentage? All of this sounds very dicey to me, and with Trump sounding so aggressive in his talks at UN this week- not sure what is a dicier proposition... I have to admit that my awareness of all of this is not too great or broad, but I look forward to your posts, as I am trying to and learning from them. Thank you.


RUSSIA has done a right thing stopping the trading in US DOLLARS


Well TRUMP need to understand that such things can do worst for USA


Fingers are crossed. I hope the policy should be in the favor of all the four countries because we dont want another COLD WAR OR WORLD WAR so Sustainability should be maintained