Pyongyang's Race Against the Clock

From a deteriorating humanitarian situation to the frightening possibility of Kim Jong-Un losing control of his military, there are a number of reasons why North Korea might raise the specter of war. So alarming have been Prongyang's actions that even China, a close supporter of the country, has urged North Korea to de-escalate the situation.

Far from it, North Korea has instead issued a statement through the state news agency KCNA that is prepared to launch a nuclear strike against the United States.

Although it is hoped that North Korea's threats are merely bluster, what is certain is that another war on the Korean peninsula would prove devastating and gain Pyongyang little for its effort. As the US repositions its military assets in and to the region in response to North Korea's threats, one can only wonder—as many have and are currently wondering—if Kim Jong-Un is at all aware of what a war on the peninsula would bring.

Starvation and Defection

North Korea is no stranger to famine; however, despite foreign assistance, the situation continues to remain desperate. Recent defection attempts by North Korean soldiers to China have revealed a humanitarian crisis in progress.

In March, 12 North Korean soldiers attempted to defect to China; however, they were stopped by Chinese soldiers and turned around. In another instance, a another North Korean soldier shot and killed his superior officers before crossing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into South Korea.

The picture painted is a grim one. North Korea is starving and the risk of another attempt at a military coup (as was the case in the 1990s) cannot be dismissed. Has Kim Jong-Un lost control of the military or is he under the influence of more hawkish elements in the government? While rumors abound, it can be assumed that an element of instability is at the root of North Korea's recent threats. One is left to wonder whether Kim Jong-un's saber rattling is an effort to focus the population's attention somewhere other than a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and North Korea, it can be argued, has been mired in a state of desperation for a long, long time. As such, Pyongyang may see war or the specter of war as a necessary act of survival, ironic though it seems.

China's Burden

Far from standing in Pyongyang's corner, China is perhaps wondering how to divest itself of an appendix that is about to rupture. Although committed to North Korea, the consequences of the country's warmonering have caused Beijing more than enough headaches.

Despite indications that China has begun mobilizing troops to the North Korean-Chinese border, this should not be taken as a sign of Chinese support and intervention in any potential conflict. A war on the peninsula would send waves of North Korean refugees streaming north into China, refugees Beijing would rather not handle, in much the same way it turned back the deserting North Korean soldiers.

Already, North Korea's bellicose rhetoric has proved distressing for China in that it has attracted American attention to the region when Beijing would rather the US look elsewhere. With China's aspirations in the region already facing close scrutiny by its neighbors, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, especially over the matter of the South China Sea maritime and territorial disputes, a renewed and concentrated American focus in the area is the last thing China wants.

In the event of a war, it is almost certain that China would be dragged in, whether it wants to or not. To say nothing of refugees that will attempt to find shelter in China, Beijing must find a way to preserve its hold over Pyongyang.

Regime Change on the Korean Peninsula

For China, North Korea has served as a strategic partner and a buffer state between US-allied South Korea. That, however, was almost 60 years ago. Today, China maintains trade relations with South Korea and the US (despite competing against one another on the global stage). Therefore, what role is there for North Korea in this modern world?

There is still value in North Korea as a strategic partner, but the current crisis has undoubtedly had some Chinese citizens and academics questioning their continued support despite Beijing's pro-North Korea stance. However, the recent crisis probably has a few Chinese officials contemplating whether North Korea is still worth the effort.

Should war break out on the Korean Peninsula, absent any possibility of unifying the two Koreas, China may take the opportunity to replace the Kim Jong-Un regime with one that is more malleable to Beijing's commands. This would not only ensure China's continued presence on the peninsula, but it would also contain the spread of a North Korean refugees. The US and South Korea, perhaps unwilling to cross the DMZ and occupy a nation devastated by famine and war, may again cede the North to China; however, a more stable regime would likely be, at the very least, tolerated by all parties involved.

All of this, of course, begs a question: What does North Korea hope to gain from all of this? Is it more foreign assistance, or is this simply a child leader acting out? War or no war, however, it is clear that the clock is running out on North Korea.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese-Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and BBC Vietnamese Service.)