This time Kim Jong-Il may not be bluffing
In an alarming analysis in an official Chinese publication, a senior advisor to the Chinese government expects North Korea to launch a war on the South in the belief that it has overwhelming military superiority.
Zhang Lianggui, a professor of International Strategy at the Central Communist Party School in Beijing, also writes that he regards Pyongyang's nuclear program as posing a significant and unprecedented danger to China.
Zhang, who has been at the school since 1989, is a specialist on North Korea, where he studied at Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang from 1964-1968. His analysis, in the June 16 issue of World Affairs magazine, is one of the most critical of the North ever to appear in an official publication. It reflects Beijing's rising anger with its neighbor and frustration that it can do so little to change its nuclear policy – despite the fact that the country relies upon it for supplies of food and oil.
The first generation of Communist leaders had strong sympathy for Kim Il-Sung, who studied at secondary school in northeast China, spoke Mandarin and fought with Chinese forces against the Japanese. The current leaders have no such feeling for his son, whom they regard as a bandit.
In the magazine, Zhang wrote that the world underestimates the magnitude of the risk on the Korean Peninsula.
"If we look at the situation as it is, the likelihood of a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula is very high," he wrote. "It will start on the sea and then could spread to the 38th parallel. If a war breaks out, it is very difficult to forecast how it would develop. North Korea believes it now has nuclear weapons and has become stronger. It believes that it has overwhelming military superiority over the south and would certainly win a war," he said.
Since the end of the Korean war in June 1953, the North has never recognized the Northern Limit Line (NLL) which the United States designated at the time as the sea boundary between the two sides and which the South accepts. On January 17, it repeated its refusal to recognize the boundary. A scene of bloody clashes between the two sides, the area contains 2,500 islands and is rich in fishing resources.
There has been a gradual escalation in tension since January, when the North announced a “state of total war” with the South. It has since then tested long-range missiles and a nuclear bomb.
Zhang also said that the North's nuclear tests pose “a risk that it [China] had never faced for thousands of years.” Nuclear tests by the US, Russia, China, Britain and France were carried out in deserts or remote places far from population centers. But the North's tests are just 85 km from the Chinese border, Changbai county in Jilin province, and 180 km from Yanji, a city of 400,000 people.
"The tests are close to densely populated areas of East Asia. If there were an accident, it would not only make the Korean nation homeless but also turn to nothing plans to revive the northeast of China," he wrote, asking why the tests were far from Pyongyang but not far from China.
"The danger for China is extremely grave. We have not paid sufficient attention to this risk. If we cannot bring about a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, mankind will pay a heavy price, especially the countries bordering Korea," he wrote.
Pyongyang, he said, has never liked the six-party talks that have been trying, with Beijing's help, to get the North to relinquish its nuclear program because it regards the matter as essentially a bilateral issue to be settled with the United States alone. He does not believe North Korea will return to the stalled talks.
"North Korea has turned from being a non-nuclear state into a nuclear one. In addition, it has at least 800,000 tonnes of heavy fuel [under terms of an earlier shut down of the country's main nuclear reactor]. The six-party talks have fulfilled their historical mission."
Zhang said that Kim Jong-Il is racing to fulfill the mission given to him by his father before he hands over power to his successor, expected to be his youngest son Kim Jong-woon, 25.
This includes making North Korea a nuclear state, a symbol of a powerful country: developing missiles capable of delivering these nuclear weapons, re-negotiating the NLL and obtaining possession of the five major islands in the western sea and their rich fishing grounds, using nuclear weapons to create a new international environment and achieve reunification.
Zhang's assessment of Pyongyang reflects Beijing's anger against North Korea and inability to influence policy there.
"Negotiating with North Korea is like negotiating with the mafia which is blackmailing you," said Wang Wen, a veteran Chinese journalist. "Beijing continues to supply the North with food, oil, consumer goods and other items it needs. The North does not pay. It [China] could cut off the supply, which would lead to a collapse of the regime. That would mean a unified Korea dominated by the United States. Pyongyang knows this and continues to blackmail China, like the mafia."
He said that, to prevent this scenario, Beijing has continued to keep the regime afloat. "For years, it has been pushing the North to follow its example of economic reform and not political reform. The Kaesong industrial park is a small step in this direction, but there is nothing else."
The park, a joint venture between North and South Korea10 km north of the demilitarized zone, employed 40,000 North Korean workers in more than 75 South Korean factories as of July last year. In June, the North demanded new average salaries of US$300 a month, up from US$75, which the South has ruled as unacceptable. The wages go largely to the North Korean government.
"Beijing understands very well the mind-set of Kim Jong-Il," said Wang. "It is the same as that of Mao Zedong when he built China's nuclear bomb in the 1960s, when his people were starving. The Soviet Union did not help and the US wanted to bomb the site, but it built the bomb anyway. North Korea today is more isolated than China was then, so it needs the bomb even more."