What the blow up between North and South Korea may really have been about

August 24, 2015
North Koreans who signed up to join the army train in the midst of political tension with South Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's KCNA in Pyongyang

North Koreans who signed up to join the army train in the midst of political tension with South Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang August 23, 2015.

After midnight on Tuesday morning, North and South Korea ended a military standoff that began last week, when the two countries traded rocket artillery fire for the first time in five years.

But other, more important behind-the-scenes action has likely been taking place, involving North Korea and its main trading partner and sole ally — China.

The closed nature of both countries means that it’s virtually impossible to know for sure. I base this theory on my experience working for the State Department in China for three years, living along the China-North Korea border, and monitoring food, grain and oil movement in and out of China.

Historically, when North Korea has poked South Korea, it has done so to either stoke national pride or get Beijing’s attention. That looks likely to have been the case this time. Chinese and DPRK officials have likely been holding talks, primarily in the border region of Liaoning Province, as they did while I was in the region in the mid-2000s. Much of the discussion probably involved China urging restraint between North and South Korea. In the event of a war between the Koreas, millions of North Koreans will likely flee to China, so it is in China’s best interest to help secure peace on the peninsula.

But the real meat of the discussion likely concerned what North Korea wants — not necessarily from its southern adversary, but from China. North Korea relies on China for food, arms and energy. And China is much more inclined to use carrots rather than sticks to gain cooperation from North Korea.

The most recent provocation likely had its roots in cash and food shortages or, less likely, a snub from Beijing. While the incident occurred in the DMZ, it likely had far more to do with DPRK-China relations than relations between the two Koreas.

The June drought in North Korea may have done more harm to the country’s harvests than the World Food Program had estimated. The DPRK recently described the 2015 drought as the worst in 100 years. Moreover, North Korea’s closing of its borders for several months during the Ebola outbreak did serious damage to its tourism industry which, while small, is an important source of hard currency. Additionally, Chinese President Xi Jinping has thus far snubbed repeated requests for a meeting with Kim Jong Un, a slight that my well have played into the recent outburst. Short of both cash and food, and not feeling much love from Beijing, North Korea’s provocative behavior is not surprising.

While much of the international focus has rightly been on events in Panmunjom, past experience shows that we should expect activity soon in the Chinese border town of Dandong, the main rail and road port into North Korea. After the November 2009 naval skirmish between the Koreas, food aid (primarily corn) moved across the rail bridge into North Korea, and observers along the Chinese side of the border saw shiny new Chinese trucks and heavy equipment suddenly present on the North Korean side of the border. It seems likely that same thing will happen this time: a sign that by trading rocket artillery fire with South Korea, North Korea was able to extract additional aid from China, as it has in the past.

Reporters and analysts often wonder why China — the world’s second-largest producer of corn — imports and stockpiles corn, which has reached levels so high that new facilities have to be built. It is no accident that these stockpiles are located close to the North Korean border. While much is made of how the United States and South Korea manage problems with North Korea, less attention is paid to the fact that China is the main guarantor of stability, providing most of North Korea’s food and more than 90 percent of its power.

China responded somewhat differently to the most recent conflict than it has in the past. In recent days it reportedly moved large numbers of troops into the city of Yanji, about 30 kilometers from the North Korean border. Perhaps more telling than the troop movement itself is the fact that the Chinese government allowed the press to photograph and publish pictures of the movements. This part of the response may indicate that China is more concerned than before about the possibility of regime collapse in North Korea. It plainly shows that, in the event North Korea needs to be secured by a foreign military, the Chinese will get there first.

In the end, this episode is likely to have been mostly about food and fuel. I predict that after these face-saving exits by both Koreas, China will give the North whatever it really wanted in the first place.

8 comments

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I’m scared of what these two countries might do.

Posted by DBprime | Report as abusive

Yes – just another proxy war that US foments around the globe usually with Russia on the other side but this one with China on the other side – all at the expense of US tax payers to perpetually feed the corrupt establishment of defense/medical/veteran folks.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

interesting info on the China/NK relationship. Now I see the behavior as being less crazy, and having some rationale.

Posted by ckd1358 | Report as abusive

This was very helpful to understand NK behavior as I did not appreciate the level of dependency for power and food on China. The current China leadership did not create this petulant child to their South but now they struggle with finding a way for this child to grow up.

Posted by DJRRYAN | Report as abusive

Many thanks for this concise and informative article, based on experience and reason instead of the usual wild speculations.

Posted by thranx1 | Report as abusive

The instability of the NK regime may be much greater than the public is lead to believe, and that is what the Chinese are truly concerned with, and planning for.

Posted by WFH | Report as abusive

NK behavior is always looking crazy, but maybe that is what gets China’s attention. Though they have always been leery about a war on their doorstep, and this is probably one they don’t want to see happen again.

Posted by Dehumanist | Report as abusive

With a mish match of old uniforms styles and some personnel wearing sneakers, I don’t think the NK army would last long against a fully equipped and modern Army. NK uses national defence to bolster a domestic agenda.

Posted by wondering_too | Report as abusive