China’s Strange Underground War With North Korea

Tensions in the South China Sea are increasing, and there is no lack of new grounds for confrontation. A 60-year-old conflict is still unresolved; the two Koreas are still at war, aggressive rhetoric from the North is at an all-time high, and US troops remain in South Korea and Japan. This crystallization, outlasting the end of the Cold War, has grown an unprecedented branch: the increasingly evident friction between Beijing and Pyongyang. The memory of the Chinese volunteers that rushed to the aid of North Korea in 1950 seems to have faded. The expressions of friendship between the two countries have also faded into memory. The iniquities on the Far Eastern chessboard are becoming ever more clear, and so is the reason for it: the interests of the two countries are diverging dramatically. North Korea is keeping tensions high to better negotiate its existence, while Beijing is busy trying to maintain stability. With this backdrop, the symbolic impact of newsworthy events is that much higher. On the 5th of May the North Korean Navy took a Chinese ship with 16 sailors aboard, apparently peacefully. After two weeks of intense negotiations, both ship and crew were released. The terms of the deal are unknown, and most importantly there was no official declaration of a ransom having been paid, although the owner of the ship did mention that an undisclosed sum of money had been requested by the captors. The dynamics of the situation aside, Pyongyang’s motivations for the move are incomprehensible. What reason could North Korea possibly have to antagonize its only ally in the region with what appears to be an elementary power game? China is the Kim regime’s jugular vein, the only country with which it maintains political and commercial ties. North Korea’s young leader sent an emissary to Beijing to answer this very question, but his explanation may not have been fully satisfactory. Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted on the need to avoid these frictions and to find a way towards a negotiated solution to lower the military tension in the region. His declaration was unmistakably clear: “China has a very clear position concerning the issue that all the parties involved should stick to the objective of denuclearization, safeguard the peace and stability on the peninsula, and resolve disputes through dialogue and consultation.” The contrast of that statement with the policy of escalating military tension, repeated missile tests, nationalism, and finally the kidnapping of 16 sailors, could not be more evident. After the UN once again condemned North Korea’s conduct and ratcheted up sanctions, Beijing has been intent on deepening the pragmatism of its policy in the region. If North Korea still served as a buffer between China and South Korea (and US troops), it would help compensate the aid it is being given. If Pyongyang chooses instead to cease being a solution for Beijing – albeit fragile – and instead becomes a problem, China’s temptation to distance itself and reconsider the arrangement will become increasingly more urgent and likely.