As the free world decoupled from China, Beijing’s diplomatic clout is getting watered down significantly. But the paper dragon might be about to face a huge setback from the Communist-authoritarian world as North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un shows signs of drawing distance from the People’s Republic of China. In fact, North Korea could be seeking a rapprochement of sorts with the US and its allies, in a bid to release the overbearing pressure of sanctions on Pyongyang.
Ever since its inception, North Korea has remained China’s lackey. But no one wants to rally behind a weakening power. And therefore Pyongyang could be trying to strategically realign itself with the Western world and silently snub China. As a part of the changing geopolitical dynamics, Kim Jong-un even offered a rare apology for the killing of a South Korean civilian official near the disputed sea border of the two countries.
South Korea’s military had earlier insinuated the North Korean forces of shooting and cremating the official, who Seoul believes could have been trying to defect to North Korea. Pyongyang’s statement over the issue however made it clear that Kim Jong-un is “greatly sorry”. It added that the death of the South Korean official was “unsavory” and “should not have happened.” North Korea has also promised “to prevent recurrence.”
North Korea’s dictator has the reputation of being a nuclear-armed warmonger. He doesn’t really apologise for such incidents. In fact, on August 11, a North Korean patrol boat opened fire on a Chinese boat that was fishing illegally in North Korean waters and three Chinese fishermen were killed in the incident. But North Korea didn’t apologise or even regret killing the Chinese fishermen. Pyongyang’s apology diplomacy therefore reveals its changing worldview.
We cannot predict with certainty what may be going on inside North Korea, given the secret nature of its body politic. But amidst all the drama of Kim’s apparent death and coma speculations, and North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong’s enhanced status, the tide seems to be flowing against China.
And there is no reason why North Korea wouldn’t want to break free from China’s overwhelming influence. Remember, North Korea is one of the most isolated and troubled economies in the world. Kim Jong-un badly needs someone to finance his country. Till now, China was doing the job of financing North Korea but Beijing no longer holds the leverage of economics in the region as the border closure due to COVID-19 has caused an 85 percent plunge in imports from China.
The only practical option left for North Korea is to stop being China’s Client State and somehow convince the democratic world to lift the punitive sanctions imposed on Pyongyang. In fact, the process might have already started. North Korean authorities have reportedly issued ‘shoot-to-kill’ orders to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country from China. Chinese nationals were already barred from entering North Korea but the ‘shoot-to-kill’ orders may have escalated things irreversibly.
Therefore, Pyongyang’s belligerence is suddenly directed towards China. And Kim Jong-un’s hostility towards the US might just get watered down significantly. In fact, when rumour mills started speculating Kim Jong-un’s death, the US President Donald Trump tweeted, “Kim Jong Un is in good health. Never underestimate him!” Trump implied signalled he was aware of Kim Jong-un’s health, which shows that the US is deeper inside North Korea’s internal affairs than many others, perhaps even South Korea which had been claiming that Kim Jong Un was dead.
Pyongyang is getting deseprate here. North Korea has been deep crisis for more than a dozen years in face of severe economic and financial sanctions from the free world, in a bid to get North Korea to denuclearize. But North Korea always had the option of blackmailing the US and its allies like South Korea and Japan by becoming China’s Client State.
However, the COVID-19 Pandemic has changed everything. An isolated North Korea has been further forced into quarantine and the economic costs that Pyongyang is sustaining might be too hot to handle. On the other hand, Pyongyang might have also realised that a crippling economic downfall might hit China any time soon, in which case becoming China’s lackey won’t really rescue North Korea’s sanctions hit economy.
North Korea has to look for alternatives, and as such there is only one alternative- the US and its allies. Countries like India that already do not have any acrimony with North Korea could now help Pyongyang mend ties with countries it ones threatened to nuke relentlessly.
Escaping sanctions and signing a Nuclear deal with the United States could be the new strategy taking shape within North Korea, and it could come directly at China’s expense.