China reiterates it will not allow war or instability on Korean Peninsula

China will not allow war or instability on the Korean Peninsula, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Saturday. “The Korean Peninsula is right on China’s doorstep. We have a red line, that is, we will not allow war or instability on the Korean Peninsula,” Wang said at a press conference.

“I believe this is also fully in the interest of the South and North of the peninsula and in the common interest of the whole region,” Wang added.

The minister also called for an early resumption of the six-party talks. “If I may use some metaphors, I believe, we need to climb a slope, remove a stumbling block and follow the right way.” Describing the nuclear issue as the “crux of the matter,” Wang said, “First, we need climb the slope of denuclearization. Only with denuclearization can the Korean Peninsula have genuine and lasting peace.”

Secondly, the parties need to work hard to remove the stumbling block of mutual mistrust, said Wang. There is serious lack of mutual trust between the parties, especially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the United States, he added.

Third, the parties must follow the right way forward, which is dialogue, said Wang, pointing to the six-party talks as “the only dialogue mechanism acceptable to all the parties. … As the host country, we hope there can be an early resumption of the six-party talks. Some dialogue is better than none, and better early than later.”

[Xinhua]

North Korean rhetoric and reality

According to its official statements, North Korea is ready to go to the brink. But how serious are Pyongyang’s threats?

This week, new U.N. sanctions punishing the North’s successful December rocket launch have elicited a furious response from Pyongyang: strong hints that a third nuclear test is coming, along with bigger and better long-range missiles; “all-out action” against its “sworn enemy,” the United States; and on Friday, a threat of “strong physical countermeasures” against South Korea if Seoul participates in the sanctions. “Sanctions mean war,” said a statement carried by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency.

In the face of international condemnation, North Korea can usually be counted on for such flights of rhetorical pique. In recent years it threatened to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire,” and to wage a “sacred war” against its enemies.

If the past is any indication, its threats of war are overblown. But the chances it will conduct another nuclear test are high. And it is gaining ground in its missile program, experts say, though still a long way from seriously threatening the U.S. mainland.

“It’s not the first time they’ve made a similar threat of war,” said Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “What’s more serious than the probability of an attack on South Korea is that of a nuclear test. I see very slim chances of North Korea following through with its threat of war.”

Although North Korea’s leadership is undeniably concerned that it might be attacked or bullied by outside powers, the tough talk is mainly an attempt to bolster its bargaining position in diplomatic negotiations.

AP

On relations between China and North Korea

China took a step against longtime ally North Korea by voting in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch in December. Here are some questions and answers concerning China’s relationship with North Korea, as summarized in an AP article:

WHY DOES CHINA SUPPORT NORTH KOREA? – Beijing fears a collapse of the North Korean regime could send a massive flow of desperate, starving refugees into northeastern China and lead to a pro-U.S. government setting up across its border. Chinese firms could lose their leading position in North Korea, while South Korean investment in China would be diverted to help rebuild the devastated North’s economy.

WHAT ABOUT NORTH KOREA’S MISSILES AND NUCLEAR PROGRAM? – China wants a stable, peaceful Northeast Asia and doesn’t want the North to provoke retaliation from the South, Japan or the United States. China calls for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, though Beijing’s leaders are seen as resigned to the North possessing some sort of atomic weapon.

WHAT APPROACH DOES BEIJING RECOMMEND? – China typically calls for dialogue instead of sanctions, and has hosted successive rounds of talks also involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. Pyongyang agreed at the six-nation talks to end its nuclear programs, but discussions broke down over how to verify that.

SO WHY DID CHINA VOTE FOR THE NEW U.N. RESOLUTION? – China wants to register its displeasure with Pyongyang’s missile launch and doesn’t wish to be seen as obstructing the U.N.’s work. At the same time, it has pushed for a watered-down response, agreeing to strengthen existing sanctions while opposing substantially new ones. Beijing also wants to appear cooperative with the second Obama administration.

HOW MUCH INFLUENCE DOES BEIJING HAVE WITH PYONGYANG? – Hard to say. Chinese scholars and officials say not as much as the outside world thinks, and that sanctions have little effect on Pyongyang. That’s despite China being the North’s most important political ally, as well as its biggest source of food and fuel aid to prevent total economic collapse. China’s overriding fear of the North becoming a failed state severely limits Beijing’s options.

WHAT’S THE HISTORY BETWEEN THESE TWO? – Chinese troops fought on behalf of the North Korean regime in the 1950-53 Korean War and relations between the communist neighbors were long described as being “as close as lips and teeth.”

In brief, Beijing is concerned that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are destabilizing the region, but is willing to go only so far to punish its economically struggling neighbor.

Likelihood of a new North Korean nuclear test

The Guardian reports that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has published a report on the likelihood of a new North Korean nuclear test, which argues that the Pyongyang regime has its ducks in a row technically to pull off a third test, motivated in part by the need to make amends for the humiliating failure of a space rocket launch in April .

The article is by Frank Pabian, an expert on satellite imagery at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory and a visiting fellow at Stanford University, and Siegfried Hecker, also of Stanford, who was taken on a tour of a hitherto unknown North Korean uranium enrichment site in 2010.

Pabian and Hecker think that any new North Korean test could involve both plutonium and highly-enriched uranium devices, speculating that Pyongyang will emulate the Pakistani experience and that it might have acquired blueprints for making small HEU warheads from the AQ Khan nuclear smuggling network, as suggested by the UN panel of experts.

Kim Jong-un accompanied by officers of the Korean People's ArmyHowever, the authors do not believe the regime has made up its mind to test, and argue that there is still time for the international community to weigh in on Pyongyang’s cost-benefit analysis:

“North Korea has strong technical and military drivers to conduct additional nuclear tests, and it is capable of doing so within as little as two weeks. It appears that Kim Jong-un’s regime is now weighing the political costs it would have to bear should it decide to test…It is imperative for Washington, Beijing, and their partners in the six-party talks to join forces to increase the costs on North Korea of continued testing. An additional nuclear test or two would greatly increase the likelihood that Pyongyang could fashion warheads to fit at least some of its missiles — a circumstance that would vastly increase the threat its nuclear program poses to the security of northeast Asia.”