Donald Trump thinks his “maximum pressure” campaign persuaded North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But it’s a bunch of baloney. The reason Kim Jong-un is planning to denuclearize is because China adamantly opposes nuclear weapons on the peninsula. That’s the whole deal in a nutshell. China, who is North Korea’s biggest trading partner, gave Kim an ultimatum: Ditch the nukes or face long-term economic strangulation. Kim very wisely chose the former option, which is to say, he backed down.
The situation in North Korea is really quite bleak. Consider, for example, this recent piece in a United Nations periodical titled “The 5 most under-reported humanitarian crises that are happening right now”. Heading the list is this blurb on North Korea:
“….what has been drastically underreported in the last year is that unprecedented number of people who are going hungry. The UN estimates that 70 percent of the population, or 18 million people, are food-insecure and reliant on government aid. To make things worse, last year North Korea experienced its worst drought in 16 years, exacerbating an already dire food shortage. With tight control of its borders keeping out aid organizations and journalists, it’s almost impossible to capture how many are actually receiving the urgent food aid they need.” (U.N. Dispatch)
Unfortunately, famine and drought are just the tip of the iceberg. The economic sanctions have added a whole new layer to the North’s misery, in fact, they have brought the economy to its knees. Pyongyang might have been able to muddle through had Beijing not joined the international blockade, but once China agreed to participate, the North’s fate was sealed. In the last year, the DPRK’s currency has dropped precipitously, the country’s import-export trade has been slashed by half, and the battered economy has plunged into a deep slump. The problem is almost entirely attributable to China’s tightening sanctions regime which has effectively cut off the flow of capital and vital resources to the North. In order to grasp how overly dependent the DPRK is on China, take a look at this:
“Trade with China represents 57% of North Korea’s imports and 42% of its exports. …
In February 2017, China restricted all coal imports from North Korea until 2018. This is considered to be extremely harmful to the North Korean economy, as coal was the top export of the nation, and China was their top trading partner…
On 28 September 2017… China ordered all North Korean companies operating in China to cease operations within 120 days. By January 2018 customs statistics showed that trade between the two countries had fallen to the lowest level recorded.
On 7 May 2013, Bank of China, China’s biggest foreign exchange bank and other Chinese banks closed the account of North Korea’s main foreign exchange bank.
On 21 February 2016 China quietly ended financial support of North Korea without any media publicity. It is reported to be due to the fallout of relations between the two governments….”(Wikipedia)
China Sanctions Summary:
- China destroyed the North’s import and export trade, including the North’s primary export, coal.
- China shut down all the DPRK’s companies operating in China. (terminating the recycling of revenues back to the North.)
- China cut off access to foreign banking. (and, thus, foreign investment)
- China stopped providing any financial support for the North.
What other country could withstand this type of economic strangulation by its biggest trading partner?
None of this has anything to do with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign which really had no effect onKim’s decision at all. Denuclearization is all China’s doing. China put a gun to Kim’s head and simply waited for him to cave in. Which he did. He very wisely chose the path of least resistance: Capitulation. The question is: What did Kim get in return?Before we answer that, we need to understand that China-DPRK relations have been strained for more than a year, dating back to early 2017 when China joined the US effort to impose sanctions on the North. The Korean News agency sharply rebuked China for its disloyalty saying, “(China) is dancing to the tune of the US while defending its hostile behavior with excuses that (the sanctions) were not meant to hurt the North Korean people, but to check its nuclear program.”
While the North’s anger is understandable, it’s worth pointing out that Beijing has always opposed Kim’s nuclear weapons programs, in fact, in 2016, (long before bilateral relations soured) China’s Foreign Minister openly condemned the DPRK’s behavior saying, “We strongly urge the DPRK side to remain committed to its denuclearization commitment, and stop taking any actions that would make the situation worse.”
The warning was followed a year later by joint sanctions aimed at forcing Kim to give up his nukes. To Beijing’s credit, the goal was never to punish or humiliate the North, but to strengthen regional security by reducing access to nuclear weapons. Bottom line: China has acted responsibly throughout.
In March 2018, Kim made an unannounced visit to General Secretary Xi Jinping in Beijing. Kim was given the red carpet treatment for four days while the two leaders huddled and worked out their strategy for denuclearization in the context of a broader economic revitalization program aimed at integrating the peninsula with the rest of the continent.Very little is known about the 4-day confab in Beijing, but it’s obvious that Kim was encouraged to normalize relations with his counterpart (Moon Jae-in) in the South based on a firm commitment to decommission his nuclear weapons. It is no coincidence that the meeting between the two leaders and Kim’s dramatic reversal in policy took place just weeks after Kim met with the Chinese Premier. Clearly, China was the driving force behind Kim’s decision.
Critics of process think the North is engaged in an elaborate hoax that will amount to nothing, but that is probably not the case. Keep in mind, it is Beijing that is calling the shots not Kim. If China wants Kim to abandon his nukes, that’s probably what he will do. Of course, Kim would not go along with Beijing’s demands if he thought he might be putting his country at risk of a preemptive attack by the United States. Nor would he give up his nukes if he thought he was going to wind up like Mummar Gaddafi who was savagely skewered after he succumbed to US demands to surrender his WMD.
So how did China manage to convince Kim that he had nothing to worry about?
This question has not yet been fully answered, but we have to assume that China (and perhaps Russia) provided assurances to Kim that his country would be defended if attacked by the United States. Such guarantees would not be unprecedented, in fact, in 2017 Beijing stated clearly that no unprovoked attack by the US on the DPRK would go unanswered. Here’s part of the statement which appeared in Chinese state media:
“China should make it clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral,” (but) “If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”
“China opposes both nuclear proliferation and war in the Korean Peninsula. It will not encourage any side to stir up military conflict, and will firmly resist any side which wants to change the status quo of the areas where China’s interests are concerned.”
Beijing must have allayed Kim’s fears or he never would have agreed to denuclearize. But now that he feels protected, Kim appears to be eager to reconcile with his new friends in the South. Here’s what he said on Friday:
“I look forward to making the most of this opportunity so that we have the chance to heal the wounds between the North and the South…. I came here to put an end to the history of confrontation as well as to work shoulder to shoulder with you to tackle the obstacles between us. I came with the confidence that a brighter future awaits us.”
Kim is serious. He wants to restart the peace process and restore economic ties with the South. He formalized his commitment by signing a document that called for “the prohibition of the use of force in any form against each other”, “an end to the war” and”complete denuclearization.” Also, both leaders are committed to the gradual economic integration of the North and South via vital infrastructure projects that will strengthen popular support for the (eventual) reunification of the country. The importance of this joint commitment cannot be overstated. Kim is not simply giving up his nukes to placate China or ease sanctions, he is taking the first step on a path towards “balanced economic growth and shared prosperity”. Item 6 in the Panmunjeom Declaration”, which Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed on Friday, lays it out in black and white:
“South and North Korea agreed to actively implement the projects previously agreed in the 2007 October 4 Declaration, in order to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation. As a first step, the two sides agreed to adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernization of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilization.”
The clause articulates the same vision for the future as an earlier integration plan that was drafted at the the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok on September 6-7, 2017. The meetings– which included North and South Korea, Japan, Russia and China– focused on drawing neighboring states into a common economic space with lowered trade barriers to promote development and prosperity. The strategy has been dubbed the Putin Plan and it is designed in a way that it can be easily linked to the Eurasian Union project and China’s strategic “Silk Road Economic Belt” project. The ultimate objective is to create a free-trade zone (“Greater Europe”)that extends from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
The plan is explained in greater detail in Gavan McCormick’s excellent article at The Asia-Pacific Journal titled “North Korea and a Rules-Based Order for the Indo-Pacific, East Asia, and the World”. The Putin Plan anticipates multiple Siberian oil and gas pipelines criss-crossing the two Koreas to railways and ports that are linked to Japan, China, the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
“South Korea’s President Moon projected his understanding of this within the frame of what he called “Northeast Asia-plus,” which involved construction of “nine bridges of cooperation” (gas, railroads, ports, electricity, a northern sea route, shipbuilding, jobs, agriculture, and fisheries), embedding the Korean peninsula in the frame of the Russian and Chinese-led BRICS, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Shanghai Cooperation Organiziation (SCO) organizations, extending and consolidating those vast, China- and Russia-centred geo-political and economic groupings. Though billed as “economic,” and having no explicit “security” element, the Vladivostok conference was nevertheless one that would go a long way towards meeting North Korea’s security concerns and making redundant its nuclear and missile programs. …Unstated, but plainly crucial, North Korea would accept the security guarantee of the five (Japan included), refrain from any further nuclear or missile testing, shelve (“freeze”) its existing programs and gain its longed for “normalization” in the form of incorporation in regional groupings, the lifting of sanctions and normalized relations with its neighbor states, without surrender….
….Vladivostok might mark a first step towards a comprehensive, long overdue, post-Cold War re-think of regional relationships….” (“North Korea and a Rules-Based Order for the Indo-Pacific, East Asia, and the World”, Gavan McCormick, The Asia-Pacific Journal)
In my opinion, Kim Jong-un is prepared to liquidate his nuclear weapons stockpile in order to join this massive regional development project that will draw the continents closer together, create new centers of power and prosperity, undermine Washington’s self-aggrandizing “pivot to Asia” strategy, and strengthen a rules-based multi-polar world order that protects the sovereignty and rights of all its members. Thus, “denuclearization” conceals a tectonic shift in the global power structure.
Bravo, for that.