North Korea appears to have become increasingly desperate in its behaviour. It executed its number two leader Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, called South Korean President Park Geun-hye a ‘prostitute’ and the US President a ‘pimp’ in April 2014, characterised China as ‘spineless’ in July 2014, and fired around one hundred short-range missiles in the East Sea in June-July 2014. North Korea’s desperate behaviour has not been able to bring any change in the US and South Korean postures but it has definitely alienated China.
South Korea’s tough posture, the US policy of ‘strategic patience’ and the growing economic and political hardships and isolation of North Korea have been problematic for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea had tried to come out of the crisis by being tough and uncompromising as it did in the past. Through nuclear and missile tests in early 2013 and escalation of military tensions in mid-2013, it tried to show that pressure and sanctions would not work and South Korea and the US must go back to placating North Korea. However, North Korea miscalculated not only South Korean or American responses but also Chinese in the latest round of hostilities.
It is important to underline that China provided North Korea the strategic space in which it could independently deal with the US and South Korea, and China did not either intervene in it or find it discomforting. However, it seems that North Korea went beyond this strategic space. Military tension escalated in the region when North Korea loudly opposed - both in words and actions – the South Korea-US joint military exercise in April 2014. The North Korean justification was that the US had brought its more advanced weaponry in the region as well as installed a missile defence system in Guam. North Korea-China relations became estranged and China started cooperating more substantially with the international community in putting sanctions on North Korea. The execution of Jang Song-thaek was symbolic of the growing distance between North Korea and China as he was supposed to be close to China. Rather than amending its ways, North Korea in a way challenged or warned China not to expect any compromise from it. This growing distance can be understood from the fact that the new Chinese and South Korean Presidents have been able to have two summit meets in both countries but there has been no visit by China’s top leaders to North Korea.
North Korea probably wants to convey to both its rivals and friends that it would not succumb to any pressure and the only way to deal with it is engagement. It wants to send this message by resorting to the escalation of military tension and rhetoric. But it seems that the new Chinese leadership is not in agreement with this North Korean strategy. China has also been looking at the broad regional equations in which it has to deal with an assertive Japan, ambivalent US and a possible partner in South Korea.
North Korea has also been looking to inculcate new partnerships and entertained a Japanese official delegation in Pyongyang for talks on the issue of Japanese abductees in April 2013. Japan and North Korea have been meeting to discuss this issue since May 2014. North Korea has been exploring in Japan a potential partner, which might be able to lessen the international isolation and pressure. North Korea thus appears to be utilising the Japanese isolation in the region in its own favour. Since 2013, North Korea has also been trying to reach out to Russia as its relations with China have not been smooth. In May 2014, Russia wrote off US$10 billion in loans to North Korea and there have also been a few important bilateral visits from both sides.
In an unprecedented move in July 2014, the North Korean media called for the strengthening relations with Russia on the 11th anniversary of a summit between Kim Jong-il and Vladimir Putin. In the same context, there was no official statement on China-North Korea relations in on the 33rd anniversary of its Friendship Treaty with China. It has also been reported that North Korea’s trade with Russia reached up to US $104 million in 2013 with a rise of 37.3 per cent. To further the exploration of new relations, the North Korean foreign minister is to visit Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar before he attends the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Myanmar.
However, this search for new partners would not be able to compensate for its growing distance from China. There are still expectations that not everything is lost in China-North Korea relations and it is also not easy for China to fully abandon North Korea. However, Pyongyang’s overture towards Japan is going to be the key and would be most keenly watched in Beijing. If North Korea crosses the Rubicon, China will have to seriously re-think its North Korea policy.