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North Korea: Testing China’s Patience

North Korea: Testing China’s Patience

Postcard from North Korea
Photo: John Pavelka, Creative Commons License

Anniversaries have always been important in Socialist countries.

For the people, it means a day off from the humdrum of workaday life with maybe an extra ration of meat or eggs to help the celebrations. Such has been the tradition in North Korea, and this upcoming Saturday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party (KWP), will be no exception.

For the leaders, such anniversaries are the perfect opportunity to broadcast political messages to their long-suffering subjects. For Kim Jong Un, the still relatively new North Korean leader, this Saturday’s anniversary is just too good a chance to let go by.

A missile launch would inevitably inject more tension into the complex and for now far from harmonious relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing.

In direct contrast to his father, Kim Jong Il, who allied himself with the Army to help shore up his power base, Kim Jong Un is consciously choosing to build up the Party as the vehicle through which to try and rule the country.

There are both political and presentational reasons for this. Politically, it allows Kim Jong Un to set up his own structure and staff it with those loyal to him rather than to his father. Presentationally, close association with the Party harks back to the glory days (in North Korean terms) of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, still revered as the founder of the nation and the KWP.

While Kim Jong Il downplayed Party anniversaries, Kim Jong Un seems to be planning to make October 10th a big day. Preparations have been underway for some time and much effort has been invested on the part of the citizens, both in terms of time and money (and not always voluntarily) to make sure that everything looks as good as possible for the anniversary. On Saturday, the population will no doubt enjoy the day’s break from normal routine, but the wider world will be watching for what else might happen.

Pyongyang has a tradition of grand gestures, often on anniversaries, to try and demonstrate military prowess. Some have been successful, some not. Although satellite pictures have not picked up any of the requisite technical preparations, the North Korean PR machine has for some time been hinting at the launch of a long-range rocket to mark this week’s anniversary Other reports from Pyongyang now suggest less ambitious plans, perhaps centred on a military parade displaying new weaponry.

To the unsophisticated and under-informed North Korean domestic audience, either event would be portrayed as a symbol of national pride and technical achievement that justifies the grim economic hardships endured by the population. A display of military muscle might also help appease the still powerful army, whose influence Kim Jong Un has apparently been trying to rein in but whom he cannot afford to alienate totally.

While a parade would certainly attract the attention of regional military intelligence agencies, it would probably not provoke serious international political controversy. A rocket launch would. North Korea’s likely argument that a rocket launch was part of its efforts to develop a civilian space capability would cut little ice with its neighbours and the United States, long concerned about progress in Pyongyang’s development of a ballistic missile programme.

All eyes would be on Beijing. North Korea’s frequent provocations to help secure political concessions, and often financial and food aid too, are no longer having the effect they used to. Having all been burnt once too often in the past, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are not in mood to play such games. And crucially for Pyongyang, neither, it seems, is Beijing.

A missile launch would inevitably inject more tension into the complex and for now far from harmonious relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing. Their once close links are nowhere as good with Kim Jong Un in charge in Pyongyang as they were under Kim Jong Il.

China’s strategic interest in having North Korea as a buffer against South Korea and the US troops stationed there means that it may not yet be at the point of ditching its neighbour. The political and material support from China that has helped North Korea survive in recent years will no doubt continue, at least for now. But Beijing has not tried to hide that its patience with Pyongyang is fraying.

At what point might China decide that enough is enough, and use its considerable leverage to persuade North Korea to become a better neighbour?

Beijing is content with the regional status quo. It surely does not want the current (relative) regional stability upset by a small neighbour trying to muscle itself a seat at the nuclear table. Indeed, China has made no secret of its unhappiness at the idea of North Korea having a nuclear capability with which to increase its political leverage on the regional and even the world stage (as illustrated, for example, by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874, which China supported).

Even if it does not happen this weekend, the chances of a launch at some point in the relatively near future are probably still quite high. If and when it does happen, Beijing’s tolerance will be put to a serious test. At what point might China decide that enough is enough, and use its considerable leverage to persuade North Korea to become a better neighbour?

The fresh round of international diplomatic condemnation following such a launch might give the world a clue. China is well-known for its willingness to play a long game, but how long will it be prepared to put up with a North Korea acting against its interests, right on its own border?


A senior associate at CIPS, David Slinn is an international diplomat and strategist who was assigned to Pyongyang in 2002 as the first British Ambassador to North Korea.

David Slinn
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