Dueling Hotheads The War of Words that Could Go Nuclear

A North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile
KCNA / REUTERS

A North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile

By , Juliane von Mittelstaedt, , and

Part 2: The China Question


Kim has also been successful economically. He is transforming Pyongyang into one big propaganda backdrop with modern high-rises and amusement parks. Once empty streets are now experiencing traffic jams and many subjects who had previously been completely cut off in the hermetically sealed country can now be seen making calls and surfing the net on their smartphones. The boom has been financed through the export of raw materials and foodstuffs as well as through a large number of trading companies operating out of China. In addition, the intelligence services in Seoul estimate that North Korea also has stationed around 7,000 computer experts, spies and hackers abroad. A single hacking attack last year on Bangladesh's central bank supposedly yielded a booty of $81 million.

That's why it seems unlikely the most recent, and thus far strongest, United Nations-imposed sanctions can stop Kim. Resolution 2371, which was also backed by China, is aimed at curbing North Korea's exports by $1 billion -- about one-third of its overall exports. It also bans countries from allowing in workers from North Korea and from entering into joint ventures with North Korea. To secure China's vote for the sanctions, however, the U.S. reportedly made concessions. For example, Beijing is still allowed to continue its oil deliveries to North Korea.

It's also the reason Mark Fitzpatrick of Washington's International Institute for Strategic Studies is skeptical about the effects of sanctions. "The sanctions will undoubtedly not be fully implemented," he says. "North Korea will find other avenues of income." He suggests increasing the pressure through a naval blockade.

China's Role

For now, though, the situation largely hinges on China. Trump has been trying for some time now to apply pressure on Beijing, but those efforts have been unsuccessful so far. He once again warned China on Thursday that it must do more, claiming that the U.S. loses "hundreds of billions of dollars" a year in its trade with China and that this would not continue. That is unless, Trump argued, China helps him with North Korea. But this isn't the first time he's made threats like these, and it's hard to imagine Beijing still taking this U.S. president seriously anyway.

"It's good that China went along with this most recent, significant tightening of the sanctions and that it now also wants to implement them in a resolute way," says German Foreign Minister Gabriel. Pyongyang, he says, must understand that it has no more partners in its "aggressive path of provocation." But is that really what China wants?

According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the UN resolution will help the leadership in Pyongyang make the "correct and prudent decisions." The truth, though, is that Beijing doesn't believe that sanctions will work.

A recent DER SPIEGEL cover depicts Kim and Trump
DER SPIEGEL

A recent DER SPIEGEL cover depicts Kim and Trump

"Decades ago, China was facing similar pressure from the outside," says Jin Qiangyi, the head of the Center for Inter-Korean Studies at Yanbian University. "At the time, China didn't give up either. Beijing thus knows from its own experience that the effect of sanctions is very limited."

It believes the opposite to be true: The experience with famine in the 1990s, he argues, showed that sanctions lead to suffering among North Korea's population and only encourage the regime to harden its position. Beijing approved the sanctions to counter the accusation that China only sides with Kim -- and also because a growing number of Chinese people are now critical of China's loyalty to the dictator in Pyongyang.

Beijing's Interests

Beijing's recipe for resolving the conflict is primarily to pass the buck to the U.S. and its allies and to call on them to negotiate directly with North Korea. Officials in Beijing have preached that it will only be possible to convince North Korea to freeze its missile and nuclear program if Washington, Seoul and Tokyo stop conducting joint military maneuvers in the Western Pacific.

China's suggestion can't be dismissed out of hand. Bringing the two rivals to the negotiating table would at the very least prevent a further escalation. But so far, Beijing hasn't shown any sign it would itself like to take on greater responsibility.

This fuels the suspicion that Beijing is less interested in finding a solution than it is in safeguarding its own interest -- namely that of breaking the United States' hegemony in the Pacific and rising to become the region's leading power.

Of course, Beijing would also prefer it if Kim were to freeze his missile and nuclear program and stop provoking others. But what frightens Beijing more than North Korea's atomic weapons is the idea that the regime in Pyongyang might one day collapse, precipitating reunification under the leadership of Washington and Seoul -- a development that could result in the stationing of American soldiers along China's own frontier.

In order to assuage such fears, it has been reported, Henry Kissinger, the old master of diplomacy with China, recently advised Secretary of State Tillerson to provide some guarantees to Beijing, including a large-scale withdrawal of American troops from the south in the event of reunification. This, he is said to have argued, was the only way for America to eliminate Beijing's reservations about the idea that North Korea might no longer exist one day as a buffer state.

For now, Beijing considers the outbreak of a new Korean War to be unlikely. But the closer North Korea gets to its goal of building an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead, the greater that risk grows. And what would Beijing gain from being the leading power in a region if it descended into chaos?

Few Chances for a Diplomatic Solution

In Tokyo and Seoul, meanwhile, people are almost as worried about the U.S. and China reaching an agreement without them as they are about military escalation. Both countries want to continue amassing their own arms. Japan's defense minister now argues his country has to have the capability of carrying out pre-emptive strikes. Even South Korea's new president is striking a more aggressive tone. Moon Jae In took office with the goal of furthering reconciliation with the North, but now he is calling for a comprehensive overhaul of South Korean defenses.

As catastrophic as a war would be, there are few chances of a diplomatic solution, and that is the major dilemma in this conflict.

In 1994, the Clinton administration signed an agreement with Kim Jong Il, who promised to stop reprocessing fuel rods in exchange for oil delivery. But the North Korean leader, who is the father of Kim Jong Un, secretly continued it. A further attempt in 2005 also failed. As long as the people in power in Pyongyang believe they need nuclear weapons to secure their power, it seems, they will not be prepared to give them up.

Anti-American protesters in Pyongyang: Even the latest UN sanctions against North Korea are unlikely to deter Kim from continuing with his nuclear program.
KIM WON-JIN / AFP

Anti-American protesters in Pyongyang: Even the latest UN sanctions against North Korea are unlikely to deter Kim from continuing with his nuclear program.

Trump, it turns out, only has bad options at his disposal. Even the powerful U.S. military lacks the capability to hit all the North's military installations simultaneously and prevent Kim from launching a retaliatory strike. Most experts are certain that the only thing that can keep Kim in check is a mixture of sanctions, cyber-warfare and isolation -- and that the world will ultimately have to come to terms with North Korea as a nuclear power.

This wouldn't be a new thing. When Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong built their first atomic bombs, pre-emptive strikes were also discussed. Fortunately, Trump's predecessors acted level-headedly, and the Soviet Union and China ultimately became nuclear powers. Since then, the fragile logic of mutual deterrence has prevailed.

Trump is now 71 years old. He grew up in the most peaceful period that his country has ever experienced. Hopefully he hasn't forgotten that.

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