Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:24 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:24 | SYDNEY

Korea crisis: Beijing\ choice


Rory Medcalf


24 November 2010 16:43

I came to Seoul this week to discuss nuclear deterrence and North-South relations with local experts. Little did I expect that scholarly consultations would turn into all-too-lively field research. Here are a few very initial thoughts on what is happening.

First, the good news: escalation is unlikely. If that was going to happen it would have happened quickly.

Yesterday's attack appears to have been a grotesque tantrum by the North Korean regime, a way of seeking US attention and demonstrating that the next North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, knows how to provoke, how to fight and how to be as unpredictable as his father. Perhaps he thinks it will lock in military support for his impending rule.

But it could still backfire. The key here is China's role. China is the only power with real capacity to harm the regime in Pyongyang, as it proved when it cut off energy supplies briefly after the nuclear test in 2006.

China's image in Asia has had a shocking year. Its military and diplomatic assertiveness at sea — against Japan and in the South China Sea — has prompted most of the region to tighten security ties with the US. My consultations in Beijing last month suggested that China knows that it needs a cooling-off period in its relations with Asia and with America after all that strife, and it wants to set the scene for a successful visit by Hu Jintao to Washington in January.

Yesterday's barrage will make that so much harder. China's response will be a grand test of whether it puts the region's interests ahead of its own relations with its dangerous little brother in Pyongyang.

Beijing still absurdly denies that North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, back in March, even though a credible international investigation proved otherwise. But Beijing can hardly deny what happened yesterday. If it takes a business-as-usual approach, its relations with South Korea will be wrecked, and its chances of a working security relationship with the US will be lost, perhaps for years.

The biggest danger for the region may not be an immediate war in Korea, but rather the long-term worsening of US-China relations. The choice is now with Beijing.

Photo by Flickr user Tonio Vega, used under a Creative Commons license.