Opinion: Was Kerry's China Trip to Save Face?

In his first trip to the region after becoming US Secretary of State and after a whistle stop in South Korea John Kerry flew into Beijing to meet with China's State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday.

The BBC reports about this meeting appear to be written in a manner to make us believe that China is sympathetic to the US version of events and condemning "any provocative acts" from North Korea. However this is a quote from John Kerry himself rather than any official statement from the Chinese Government. In fact Yang Jiechi stated that China is "firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula...peaceful through dialogue," without any further elaboration.

The only agreement the US got with China, according to the Chinese press, which admittedly wouldn't give away any propaganda victories to Kerry and the US even if Yang and Wang had agreed to help, was that both sides agreed to further discussions.

So what was the purpose of Kerry's trip to China?

The chronology of events on the Korean Peninsula is well known. However in the western media, events have been portrayed in a manner where anything that North Korea says is a provocation and anything the US does is a necessary defensive response. This is hardly objective when North Korea is well known for its "aggressive statements" especially around the time of the joint US-South Korean Foal Eagle joint military exercises each year.

This is not to say that the North is the innocent bystander in all of this. The North Korean official media is not slow in making threats and statements that intentionally add to the tension. This confrontation is also very opportune for the young Kim Jong-un in consolidating his position as leader within the country. In fact, one of the consequences of this action is that it may actually be raising Kim to the status of a "hero" inside the North and hardening the support of those around him.

Much of what is going on, the rhetoric, the drama, the closure of the Kaesong industrial zone, etc. is to consolidate North Korea's citizens' support for their leaders, all leading up to the coming spectacular to celebrate Korea's first leader Kim Il-sung's birthday on April 15th. This confrontation has ensured that there will be no letting up on authoritarianism in North Korea, or chance of opening the economy to the outside world for years to come.

However, North Korea's statements have not been followed with any specific actions, except for the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, and the US is not just talking but moving some of its most sophisticated military hardware right onto the North's doorstep. North Korea may be guilty of verbal escalation, but the US is the only party that has actually escalated anything militarily, although the western media is continually warning of possible North Korean military action, which until today has not happened or even looks like happening.

Every BBC online article publishes a map of the supposed range of North Korean missiles and warheads, which have not even been tested by North Korean to validate these claims. No articles have asked whether North Korea actually has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons that are capable of being put on missiles as warheads? From the test of a crude bomb to miniaturizing bombs that actually work is a major step in technology, which is unlikely Korea possesses at present.

Some very brief historical context may shed some light on this show of force not witnessed for decades.

The Clinton Administration signed an accord with North Korea's then leader Kim Il-sung in which Japan agreed to build a light water reactor for electricity generation and supply oil until the reactor was ready to go online. The then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung also initiated the "Sunshine policy" with the North in an effort to build up trust and cooperation which would lead to an eventual form of unification, a deep aspiration of most Koreans.

It was out of this agreement with Kim Dae-jung's successor Roh Moo-jung that a further agreement was made to build the Kaesong Industrial Zone, something that gave a symbolic connection between the North and South. This eventually led to an exchange of visits in 2000 between the US and North Korea whereby then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang and Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, the second in command in North Korea, visited Washington. At this point the US and North Korea were on the verge of official diplomatic recognition and the North agreeing to end its missile testing program.

However, upon the inauguration of George W. Bush as president, the pending missile agreement didn't proceed as the new administration did not believe North Korea could be trusted. Then came 9/11 and President Bush labeled North Korea one of the "axis of evil" in the forerunning rhetoric to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

US accusations in 2002 that North Korea was operating a uranium enrichment plant saw application of further sanctions. Seeing news footage of the US invasion of Iraq would have easily contributed to Pyongyang's belief that this could happen to them.

In 2006 North Korea exploded its first small nuclear bomb. This at the time led to some skepticism where some believed the explosion was faked with an extremely large amount of TNT.

President Bush on Condoleezza Rice's advice urged US participation in six-party talks with North Korea involving China, Japan, Russia, and both North and South Korea. These talks led to North Korea blowing up the Yongbyon cooling tower as proof that no uranium enrichment would take place.

Then in 2008 when Barack Obama was running for the US presidency and promised that his administration would talk to both Iran and North Korea, there was some hope in Pyongyang that the steady peace process might continue. However upon Obama taking office this hope was quickly dashed with the new Secretary of State Hilary Clinton adopting the doctrine of "strategic patience" waiting for Kim Jong-Il to die and see a regime collapse through internal power struggles.

Both Obama and Clinton made it clear to North Korea that there would be no more talks until the North renounced nuclear weapons and opened up the country. Kim Jong-Il soon died after, passing on leadership to his son Kim Jong-un, without any change in policy or outlook.

In addition South Korea's then President Lee Myung-bak also took a harder line on North Korea, dismantling the sunshine policies of his predecessors.

In 2010 the Obama Administration sent a delegation of former high-ranking officials to Pyongyang who met with senior officials of Kim Jong-Il's government. It was reported that even though North Korea was willing to ship out all nuclear fuel rods to a third country in exchange for a US pledge that it had no hostile intent towards North Korea, the Obama administration wasn't interested.

Then in March 2010, North South relations deteriorated with the torpedoing of the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean Warship, killing 46 South Korean sailors. Although the North has denied responsibility for this act, an investigation in the South put the blame on the North although China, Russia and the United Nations Security Council, under pressure from China and Russia, did not concur with the conclusion of that report.

Then the North warned the South if any shells during a South Korean military exercise landed across the disputed border, they would retaliate with shelling of their own, which they did, killing seven civilians on the Island of Yeonpyeong. South Korea, appalled with the North's retaliation, continued the exercises scaling up tensions in the area. These tensions only subsided when the South stopped the exercises upon US warnings.

The current tensions were started with the North's launch of a satellite into orbit, which many countries have done before. Then in February, the North carried out another nuclear test and the UN placed further sanctions. Tensions continued to rise with escalation of talk and sabre rattling as the world has been watching over the last month.

From the North's perspective, the United States literally bombed North Korean into the ground during the Korean War - after, of course, then-leader Kim Il-Sung started the war - and they showed during the Iraq war that they are fully capable of doing it again. Kaesong Industrial Zone is something that is very symbolic of Korean unity and its closure could be viewed as a display of the North's anger towards the South's rhetoric. Finally, with China's change in direction over the last few years, Pyongyang could be a little uncertain about China's support if a war with the US eventuated.

The North talks of annihilating the US, while the US talks about bringing down the regime in Pyongyang. Administration rhetoric and media reporting about this "reckless regime bent on nuclear war" according to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel presents what he called "a real and clear danger and threat". The buildup of US defensive missile systems on Guam, Alaska and on the West Coast of the United States to counter this "grave threat" will require funding.

One wonders how much did the issue of future military funding come into the administration's calculations? Media reports indicate a change in many congress members' attitudes to funding cuts sine these tensions started.

Then last Thursday President Obama and his spokespeople sought* to calm down the situation through winding back the military exercises with South Korea to lower tensions. Then came Secretary of State Kerry's trip to the region on Friday.

The United States cannot really afford military action against Korea, it's not in their interest. North Korea is a good enemy to have, and can be managed through raising and lowering tensions on the peninsula. Korea is a good excuse to place military hardware close to China in the East Asian region. A collapsing North would be a disaster for the US, which would result either in a united Korea where there would no longer be any excuse for a strong military presence, or there could be some conflict between China and the US to install some other form of order in the vacuum.

So Secretary Kerry's trip to China may have been the result of a miscalculation by the administration in heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula where any further escalation could lead to irrational responses in defense. From a North perspective an attack could be seen as the best defense in these tensions.

In realizing this miscalculation John Kerry had to visit China to seek some form of face saving measure where the US could unilaterally de-escalate the rhetoric and action without being seen to back down.

This points to very poor policy handling on the part of the Obama Administration in this episode. Unfortunately the Clinton approach of the 1990s was dropped in favor of the Bush-Cheney "strategic competition and aggression" doctrine. This escalation was aimed at both "enhancing North Korea's image as an enemy", and making an excuse for more military activity in the region. By doing so the Obama Administration is the first to trigger a Chinese Level One military mobilization in many years since the Korean War.

With the US putting conditions on North Korea before the six party talks can be resumed, the Administration is playing tactical military games with North Korea without any ability to communicate which is extremely dangerous. Maybe Kim Jong-un's message through Dennis Rodman "Obama should call me" did have more significance to it than was given credence at the time.

For the citizens of the region, it appears the media has also played some role in heightening the tensions. In fact the playing up of tensions may have put the Obama Administration in the corner in need to save face and deescalate tensions. There has been very little reporting from the North Korean perspective where most media has chosen to report only what the US Administration is saying. Even the London School of Economics has put in a formal complaint to the BBC because BBC officials didn't disclose their true intentions of making a derogatory documentary about North Korea during a student visit there.

If there is to be a long term solution to the Korean Peninsula the Obama Administration needs to think very hard about what they need to do, as what they are currently doing is not working. Secondly, the media through skewed reporting has actually become one of the tools of the US Administration during this Korean escalation. The memories of weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi war are still fresh and that makes one worry if the truth has been the greatest casualty of this incident.

*typo corrected 4/1613 (Murray Hunter is an Australian academic and frequent Asia Sentinel contributor living in Malaysia)