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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Observer editorial

The Observer view on North Korea: only China can put a stop to Kim Jong-un’s latest round of nuclear sabre-rattling

This picture taken on 13 April and released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the test-fire of the new Hwasongpho-18 intercontinental ballistic missile at an undisclosed location.
This picture taken on 13 April and released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the test-fire of the new Hwasongpho-18 intercontinental ballistic missile at an undisclosed location. Photograph: KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea’s scary test launch of a newly developed, solid-fuel, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile caused a brief panic on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido last week. It also added a note of urgency to today’s meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Japan’s hot-spring resort of Karuizawa, where the Pyongyang regime’s escalating threats will be high on the agenda. Even so, the key to the North Korea conundrum may lie hundreds of miles away, in Beijing.

Two questions will dominate G7 deliberations. Why is Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator, deliberately ratcheting up tensions with South Korea, Japan and the US, their ultimate protector? And what can the allies do in response? Hailing the launch, the latest in more than 100 tests since last year, Kim gave an insight into his paranoid thinking. The new missile would “reinforce our nuclear counter-attack” and induce “the enemy to give up its idle strategy”, he said. Until then, he promised only “endless fear”.

North Korea repeatedly condemns joint US and South Korean military exercises, which it depicts as preparation for invasion. Inter-Korean dialogue has broken down since the election last year of South Korea’s conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol. A bungled attempt at rapprochement by former US president Donald Trump came to nothing. Meanwhile, Yoon revealed recently that Washington and Seoul were stepping up nuclear war planning.

Whether Kim feels genuinely threatened – North and South Korea are still technically in a state of war – or is exploiting fear of attack to better control North Korea’s people is a moot point. Yet he has many other reasons to feel insecure. His brutal regime, founded in 1948 by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, lacks legitimacy at home and is isolated abroad. Punitive UN sanctions have stunted development. Desperation to have them lifted may be driving Kim’s aggressive actions.

Recent reports that North Korea is again facing famine conditions point to hidden weakness. In January, the US-based monitoring project, 38 North, said food insecurity was at its worst since the Arduous March famines in the 1990s, which killed an estimated one million people. It is also unclear how badly the country has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, though the toll is probably far worse than officially admitted.

While such matters are shrouded in secrecy, it is also suggested that Kim, whose health is often questioned, is grappling with an in-house succession crisis. Speculation surrounds the recent public appearances of his previously unseen daughter, Kim Ju-ae, who is thought to be about 10. How her suddenly elevated status sits with her auntie, Kim’s high-flying, tough-talking younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, is anyone’s guess. To his other problems, it seems, beleaguered Kim must add trouble at home.

What can G7 ministers do to curb North Korean bellicosity? Not much, probably. Additional, unilateral sanctions by individual states may be the only option, since China, backed by Russia, has blocked tougher, collective action by the UN security council. And it is to China that the world should now look to apply effective pressure. Kim is no puppet, but he is uniquely beholden to Beijing. Unchecked nuclear proliferation – and nuclear war – are not in China’s interest.

President Xi Jinping wants to place China at the helm of a new world order. He recently brokered a “peace deal” between long-time foes, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet here is another entrenched problem, much closer to home. If Xi is serious about global leadership, he should demonstrate it by ending the standoff on the Korean peninsula.

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