Douglas Cohn: China’s pawn-in-chief is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

By Douglas Cohn

Syndicated columnist

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WASHINGTON — China is North Korea’s patron, and without China’s economic assistance, the regime would crumble.

As the U.S. and China enter into a new phase in their global rivalry, it’s tempting to look at North Korea’s actions through the prism of China, and it’s tempting to conclude that China uses North Korea like a hot poker, sticking it to the U.S. every once in a while.

For those wondering whether China’s pawn-in-chief, Kim Jong-un, the 30-year-old leader of North Korea, is doing his patron’s bidding by asserting himself as head of the government he inherited from his father two years ago, the answer may have revealed itself with the news this week that Kim’s uncle has been stripped of authority. The uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was thought by the West to be the grown-up keeping an eye on his nephew.

Not that there’s any measurable difference between the two men other than the years that separate them. They apparently share the same brutal leadership style that their forbears passed down from generation to generation. A search for moderates in North Korea would come up empty-handed.

Still, it is chilling to realize that Kim is the man to see in Pyongyang, and will be for many decades if he is prepared to vanquish all challengers with the dispatch he showed in moving aside his uncle along with a host of other elites and generals whom in his and China’s view must have outlived their usefulness.

Why we should care about these power shifts in North Korea may be puzzling to Americans. The country has no money and no trade to speak of, but it does have a million-man army to boast about and a black-market business in nuclear material. China undoubtedly supports the first and discourages the second. Meanwhile, as U.S. diplomats engage with Iran for the first time in 34 years, it remains unthinkable that any kind of diplomatic opening could exist with North Korea, dubbed the hermit kingdom for good reason.

North Korea’s periodic hostage taking is the time-honored way that Kim and his father before him got the attention of the West. Various luminaries from former Vice President Al Gore to former Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson have traveled to Pyongyang to secure the release of Americans.

The latest hostage is an 85-year-old Korean War veteran who’s been held for more than a month after traveling to North Korea as a tourist. Merrill Edward Newman was forcibly removed from the plane as he was returning home to Palo Alto, California.

For weeks, no one could provide a satisfactory answer as to why the North Koreans would want to detain the elderly man. But it has been revealed in recent days that Newman was part of a U.S. Army unit known as the “White Tigers” that conducted secret missions the North Koreans regarded as spying.

It’s hard for Americans to understand just how sensitive the North Koreans are to the war that took place more than half a century ago, in part on their soil, and how maddening it is for them that Americans barely acknowledge the conflict as a war. Congress never formally declared war; the fighting was termed a police action.

Adding insult to injury the war never officially ended. An armistice concluded the fighting, and the U.S. moved on. The North Koreans are stuck in that time period, and they will take every opportunity they can to inflict whatever revenge they can. Whether Chinese leaders approve of their surrogate’s bizarre behavior or not, the North Koreans provide a convenient distraction every now and then from whatever China is doing. Hence, the hostage-taking, occasional shelling, and maritime provocations. But such erratic behavior may have more method than madness to it — Chinese method.


U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.