North Korea’s ambitions

North Korea’s ambitions

Updated: 15 days, 2 hours, 5 minutes, 53 seconds ago

North Korea has again launched an intercontinental ballistic missile with enough range to hit the US mainland. The missile land­ed in the sea roughly 210KM west of Hokkaido (Japan). Ostensibly as a gesture of its routine bullying tactics, Pyongyang has deliberate­ly launched this ICBM on the heels of the G20 sum­mit where US President Biden asked Chinese President Xi-Jin­ping to use his influence on Kim Jong Un to halt his ongoing missile testing flights that have been threatening re­gional stability. These words, appar­ently quite austere, do not come as a surprise when viewed against the un­abating barrage of missile testing be­ing conducted by Pyongyang since the start of last month. Similarly, on No­vember 13, in Phnom Penh, President Biden, held a session with South Ko­rean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Jap­anese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, on the sidelines of the East Asia Sum­mit, quite candidly talked about the threats to the regional stability ema­nating from the DPRK’s incessant bel­ligerency. Though no official response from the Chinese officials was made on President Biden’s persistence with President Xi on the question of North Korea’s aggressive plans, given the fact that Beijing is uncomfortable with the usage of the reckless rheto­ric by Russia on the same subject, it is expected that President Xi may recon­sider its role in softening the Pyong­yang’s rigidity—perhaps a kind of bargaining ploy to win some mollifi­cation in the American stance on Tai­wan Strait and technology war.

President Biden has recently inten­sified diplomatic efforts to put indi­rect pressure on Kim Jong Un through President Xi Jinping to bridle his ambi­tious nuclear and missile programme. There are reasons to believe that Bei­jing, which has already changed its tone towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is rethinking and reevaluat­ing its full-fledged support to Pyong­yang and may shift to a lower gear. In 2017, when Kim Jong Un ordered the detonation of the sixth nuclear test, just a month ahead of the start of the inauguration session of the National Congress of the Chinese Party, it was not liked by President Xi Jinping be­cause of its awkward timing that over­shadowed the most important gath­ering of China’s political elite. Again, this time the DPRK started its new spate of aggressive missile testing in the first week of October, almost 13 days ahead of the inauguration of the 20th National Congress in Beijing. It pushed the panic buttons in the region with the spectre of the seventh nucle­ar test at this crucial time when two major events were around the cor­ner: a session of the Chinese National Congress and the US midterm polls. It was expected that Kim Jong Un, a very moody and impulsive dictator, may set the date of the expected seventh nu­clear event in the narrow window be­tween the two events to attract global attention. But it did not happen.

One reason could be the indirect pressure from President Xi Jinping, who would have been immensely up­set by any misadventure from Kim Jon Un to distract the attention from the most important session of the Nation­al Congress where his tenure was ex­tended for the third term. The current spate of weapons tests by Pyongyang, some of which flew over the territories of Japan and South Korea—including an intercontinental ballistic missile—has intensified the speculations about the seventh nuclear test in the com­ing days. North Korea has long been banned from conducting nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches by the UN Security Council, which strength­ened sanctions on Pyongyang over the years to try and cut off funding for those programmes. Although North Korea, a close ally of China, claims that tests are in response to the largest-ev­er military drills between the United States and South Korea, which ended early this month, the fact is that North Korea’s missile testing is much beyond a “protest reaction”. Over the years, due to unhindered and full-fledged support from Beijing, North Korea has developed an increasing sense of im­punity, which is witnessed by Pyong­yang’s deliberate attempts to escalate tension in the Peninsula. It is also a fact that Beijing has an integral role to play in encouraging North Korean re­straint and incentivising denucleari­sation. The Xi-Biden meeting, despite no formal or informal understanding, still has weightage that will certain­ly affect the overall atmosphere in the Korean Peninsula. After strengthening his position in the domestic political structure after the 20th National Con­gress last month, President Xi Jinping is starting a new phase of his political career at home as well as in the inter­national arena. He will be more active in international politics to outcom­pete the residents of the White House. But he needs an image overhaul to be more acceptable to the outer world. This is only possible when President Xi shows some change in stance over major contentious issues.

The last six months have seen dras­tic changes in the global scenario, and particularly rendered Russia and North Korea to be downgraded as strategic allies for Beijing. Now, Presi­dent Xi is in a position to show some compromise on Ukraine’s invasion and the DPRK’s nuclear programme to find some common grounds to work together with the West. Sensing this discreet shift in President Xi Jin­ping’s strategic view of internation­al politics, President Biden has been trying to test the limits of his coun­terpart’s flexibility to adjust to the pressures of the new ground realities of the emerging fabric of global poli­tics—with a hope that President Xi would do “something” to rein in the nuclear ambitions of North Korea.

Dr Imran Khalid

The writer is a freelance contributor with a focus on international affairs

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