Did Trigger-Happy North Korea Take a Shot at China?

On March 29, North Korea launched a projectile from a location near the port city of Wonsan. The ballistic missile or artillery shell traveled about 125 miles on a northeast path, in other words, toward China, landing near the border.

South Korean Defense Ministry analysts speculate that the North originally planned to fire the projectile out to sea but changed plans and pointed it inland instead due to last-minute problems. That seems highly unlikely, however, because if there were indeed problems they would not risk firing into China.

The NightWatch site maintains that the trajectory was intentional as well as “unprecedented.” In all probability, the North Koreans meant to send a hostile message to Beijing.

Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seem to deteriorate by the week. They are each other’s only treaty ally, but in recent years ties have evidently eroded. Now, the bilateral relationship has become, in my view, the most fascinating one in the world to watch.

There are those who believe that Beijing and Pyongyang are actually staging a drama for the benefit of outside observers, engaging in “kabuki,” in other words, maintaining an elaborate deception and denial campaign. That could have been true in the early part of last decade, especially during the first and middle stages of the Six-Party “denuclearization” talks, which began in 2003.

At this moment, however, the tension between the two states seems real. Both regimes are in turmoil, each led by a leader unable to consolidate his position after formally taking power. From all indications, the two capitals seldom talk to each other.

Why the problems? China and Korea have had a strained relationship for centuries, with their borders moving hundreds of miles in both directions.

Still, ties were good when both Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung, the founders of the two states, were alive and in charge. They had much in common—both were Chinese-speaking and members of China’s Communist Party, for instance—and so both China and North Korea cooperated and supported the other. Indeed, during the Korean War, Mao sacrificed perhaps 900,000 soldiers, including his eldest son, to keep Kim in power.

Since the passing of the two larger-than-life figures, however, subsequent leaders have failed to maintain a close personal relationship and have often found themselves at odds on fundamental policy issues. And as each regime envisioned different futures, relations have, over time, deteriorated.  

Moreover, other factors have driven the two states apart. The December 2013 execution of Jang Song Thaek, a senior North Korean official married to Kim’s aunt, and the subsequent destruction of his nationwide patronage network, for instance, had the effect of severely disrupting ties between the North and Beijing because Jang and his underlings had managed most of the communications between the two capitals.

Communication among civilian officials do not seem to have recovered since. In addition to the breakdown in civilian ties, it seems that military communications and collaboration links are deteriorating as well. China has reduced purchases of North Korean commodities from the Korean People’s Army. Kim Jong Un, the current ruler in Pyongyang, has taken responsibility for some commodity sales from the military. And, to top it off, young Kim has been purging his officers who have had ties to China, counted among the unfortunates is General Pyon In Son who was executed.

Of course, one can never be sure when dealing with China and North Korea. Yet when one state fires a projectile toward the other, we know we are seeing world-class acting or, more probably, a dramatic worsening of ties. Regardless, no possible end game suggests stability on the horizon.

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