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N. Korea Supports China amid Sino-U.S. Conflict



Conflict between the U.S. and China is intensifying further. U.S. President Donald Trump has signed an executive order revoking Hong Kong’s special trading status, following the Chinese government’s enactment of a new national security law in the former British colony. The U.S. has also rejected Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea and mentioned the possibility of imposing sanctions against China.

In response, China has criticized the U.S. for destroying regional peace and driving a wedge between China and its neighboring countries. Here is political commentator Lee Jong-hoon to explain the ever-increasing conflict between the U.S. and China.

The U.S.-China tension has flared up, especially after China passed a national security law for Hong Kong. In addition to Trump’s executive order to end preferential economic treatment for Hong Kong, the U.S. has again stepped up pressure on China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. called its moves “completely unlawful,” and has even called the area the “West Philippine Sea.” The U.S. has sent surveillance planes over the Taiwan Strait, where tension is escalating.

China has said it will impose sanctions on Lockheed Martin in response to U.S. approval of a deal for Taiwan to buy parts to refurbish missiles built by the company. The U.S. says it will sanction 11 Chinese companies for human rights violations against Uighurs. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently welcomed the U.K. government’s decision to ban Huawei equipment from its 5G telecom network. The U.S. and China have been at odds over almost everything now, with their tension hitting a new peak.

Amid bitter conflict between the U.S. and China, North Korea has lashed out at Pompeo even more severely than China. Regarding the U.S. official’s comments about the South China Sea, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said last week that Pompeo was outrageously insulting the Chinese people and that he should not make absurd remarks while interfering in other’s business whenever he pleases. North Korea voices its support for China on all controversial issues, over which the U.S. and China have clashed, to demonstrate its close relationship with Beijing.

For North Korea, it is urgent to raise its bargaining power as much as it can in preparation for its possible summit with the U.S. In the process, the North seeks to use the simmering conflict between the U.S. and China. On July 15, Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that North Korea harshly denounces Pompeo’s dangerous, anti-China remarks. The North seems to take an active interest in the U.S.-China feud.

It might seem natural that North Korea sides with China, which is its traditional ally. But with North Korea-U.S. relations at a standstill, Pyongyang’s outright support for Beijing is seen as a strategic move to elicit assistance from China on the one hand, while stoking tension by confronting the U.S.

Politically, North Korea seeks to strengthen its bargaining power with the U.S. through cooperation with China. On the economic front, the North also finds it necessary to maintain friendly relations with China due to its deteriorating economic conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The two countries have resumed part of border trade as of late, but North Korea’s economic dependence on China has become even heavier than before. By voicing its full support for Beijing, Pyongyang also puts pressure on South Korea.

Many analysts believe that the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China over a series of thorny issues may give an advantage to North Korea. The ongoing U.S.-China dispute is not a temporary conflict triggered by a particular issue but will continue for a considerable period even under a new U.S. administration that succeeds the Trump administration. North Korea is expected to seek various options aimed at getting sanctions relief, while presenting more preconditions for resuming dialogue with the U.S. Pyongyang also seems to have gained some time to secure its supporters through solidarity with socialist states like China and Russia.

If North Korea-U.S. summits had proceeded well, and if North Korea had gained what it wants, it wouldn’t necessarily have to use China. But in reality, North Korea - U.S. dialogue has been stalled, and Trump doesn’t really seem to be interested in another summit with North Korea before the presidential election.

North Korea may have concluded that it will manage the situation from a long-term point of view, with the next U.S. administration in mind. For now, the North may focus on strategies aimed at boosting its bargaining power. The U.S.-China conflict may actually work favorably to North Korea. By siding with Beijing, Pyongyang is provoking Washington in preparation for future talks with the U.S.

So then, what does Beijing think of North Korea’s pro-China attitude? It is widely believed that China welcomes the move because it can use North Korea’s strategic value amid its deepening conflict with the U.S.

China is in trouble both internally and externally. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the country hard in the economic and security sectors. It is in desperate need of support from its allies. China believes that North Korea’s confrontation with the U.S. is worth using. The communist allies also share similar ideological values. I imagine China will use the same methods it has employed before.

First, it will provide North Korea with what it badly needs, including crude oil and daily necessities, to give the North Korean economy a breathing spell. With North Korea - U.S. talks deadlocked, China’s aid for the North could serve as another negotiating card. The Beijing government is well aware of this. I think China will seek to expand its influence over North Korea.

The South Korean government is in a tricky position. President Moon Jae-in has accepted Trump’s invitation to join an extended Group of Seven summit, while Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit South Korea. In this situation, conflict between the two major powers is not very good news for South Korea. Regarding the security law for Hong Kong, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul has expressed its position that it respects the “one country, two systems.” But it is possible that the U.S. may pressure South Korea to join the move to confront China.  The escalating U.S.-China conflict may lead to a disturbing diplomatic frame of South Korea and the U.S. versus North Korea and China.

The so-called “Korea discount,” which refers to the undervaluation of South Korean stocks due to geopolitical risks in the region, may accelerate. South Korea may face economic and security risks. It seems a new Cold War has become a reality now. The intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China for global dominance will likely continue, possibly leading to extreme confrontation, much like that of the Cold War era.

The South Korean government could play a role in preventing that from happening by pursuing the diplomacy of equidistance between the U.S. and China. In the process, South Korea may use its own strategic assets such as semiconductors and 5G equipment, which both the U.S. and China need.

If China uses North Korea as its strategic asset, and if the North uses that situation, it might be more difficult to resume nuclear negotiations and improve inter-Korean relations. The Seoul government should formulate effective strategies, closely watching how the U.S.-China conflict may evolve and how North Korea will react.

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