Tensions ratchet up in region following North Korean threats


ANALYSIS:Effect of sanctions on regime depend on how rigorously China enforces them

Tensions on the Korean peninsula and in neighbouring countries were ratcheted up dramatically yesterday after North Korea vowed to nullify non-aggression pacts and cut the hotline to South Korea following the latest round of United Nations sanctions.

North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, inspected frontline troops and told them to prepare for “all-out war”, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

China, an ally of Pyongyang who nevertheless backed the sanctions, was forced to appeal for calm on all sides.

On February 12th, North Korea launched its third, most powerful, underground nuclear test, causing an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.9.

The North Koreans called it a response to US threats, and it came three weeks after an increase in sanctions against Kim’s regime.

UN resolution

The UN Security Council voted 15-0 in favour of adopting a resolution drafted by the US and China in the aftermath of the underground blast. The resolution came hours after North Korea threatened a pre-emptive atomic strike on the US and other “aggressors”.

The question is always how rigorously China will enforce the sanctions, given that Chinese fuel and aid are said to have kept North Korea going since the collapse of the Soviet Union cut off its biggest support route in the late 1980s.

There is busy traffic at the border crossings between the two ideological comrades, who describe themselves as being “as close as lips and teeth”.

Beijing backed the North in the 1950-1953 Korean War, which killed as many as 400,000 Chinese troops.

There is a feeling that the North Koreans have put relations in jeopardy, making China lose massive international face with the nuclear tests.

Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor at the school of international studies at Renmin University in Beijing, says China has supported sanctions since 2006. “America and China always have a different level of sanctions because of our different relations with North Korea.

“America wants high-intensity sanctions whereas China wants low-intensity sanctions,” he says. “There are two reasons why North Korea has gotten worse. One is the new leader doesn’t have enough experience on international relations and he takes a very hard attitude with the UN, which makes North Korea more isolated. It is very dangerous.

“The other reason is because of their insecurity. South Korea is getting stronger whereas North Korea is going backwards. So the only way they can stand up is to develop nuclear weapons.”

Modest package

Marcus Noland at the Peterson Institute for International Economics believes UN Security Council Resolution 2094 consists of a modest expansion of the “defensive” sort, aimed at disrupting North Korean activities that threaten world peace. He points to the “extremely short” list of luxury sanctions to highlight how limited the effect of the sanctions is likely to be.

The luxury items category consists only of jewellery, yachts, luxury vehicles and racing cars, far short of what the EU, Japan or even Russia were looking for. Fur coats, watches, fridges and HDTVs are safe, says Noland.

“Given the modesty of this package and North Korea’s apparent determination to build its nuclear and missile programmes, UNSC 2094 is unlikely to advance the de- nuclearisation agenda unless China decides to treat them as a floor rather than a ceiling and really put the pressure on. We are not holding our breath.”

Li Bin, a physicist who specialises in arms control and international security at Tsinghua University, says the sanctions were agreed quickly because there were not so many different opinions among the countries on North Korea.

“It is a wrong opinion that we are an ally of North Korea. China has been always on the side of being reasonable,” he says.

It was a tense end to a week that began in bizarre fashion with a visit by former US basketball star Dennis Rodman to the hermit state.

Rodman said Kim was “awesome” and said he wanted US president Barack Obama to give him a call.

The idea that Rodman probably has better intelligence about Kim than the Central Intelligence Agency makes many in the region very nervous.