Vladimir Putin weighed in on the rising threat from North Korea Tuesday, pointedly criticizing the U.S. and its allies, and warning that ramping up “military hysteria” would lead to a “planetary catastrophe.” The Russian leader’s comments echoed those made by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is fast becoming the focal point for both U.S. hostility and North Korean provocation.
While Putin called for calm, the international community has become increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang’s continued taunts. The U.N. is expected to approve another round of sanctions as soon as Tuesday, while the U.S. in particular has been ramping up the rhetoric. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has said that Kim Jong Un is “begging for war,” and President Trump confirmed Tuesday that the U.S. will sell billions of dollars of arms to South Korea and Japan.
So far, neither bluster from global leaders nor increased military operations in the region has slowed North Korea’s aim of developing and testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the continental United States.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s Asia Business Daily reported that a North Korean ICBM started moving toward the U.S.’ West Coast on Monday, ahead of a possible launch Saturday — taking place at night to avoid surveillance. On Monday, the North Korean ambassador to the U.N. warned the U.S. would receive more “gift packages as it relies on reckless provocations and futile attempts to put pressure on the DPRK.”
The Chinese authorities are stuck in the center of this crisis, as the world increasingly sees China as the only player at the table powerful enough to cut North Korea off economically, which might finally force it to back down. As the hermit kingdom’s main trading partner, it alone has the power to impose harsh sanctions which could threaten the stability of Kim’s regime.
The most drastic action China could take is to cut off North Korea’s oil supply, a move which many experts who spoke to VICE News believe would finally topple the North Korean dictator. But China is reluctant to take that step.
“The concern is, if China, under international pressure, has to cut off the economic lifeline of North Korea, and therefore directly threaten the stability of the regime, in that case, given the North Korea has nothing more to lose, it is totally possible that North Korea could threaten China as well,” Tong Zhao, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told VICE News.
In recent days both Trump and Haley have implied that the U.S. would cut economic ties with China if it didn’t do more to limit the North Korean threat. But this threat is pretty hollow, given that up to 100 countries still have some trading relationship with North Korea, including U.S. allies like France and Saudi Arabia.
“China can put a limit or completely prohibit the importation from North Korea of textile products, garments, and clothing [which] are the most important foreign income sources for North Korea,” Zhao said, explaining that there is some middle ground. Beijing and Moscow could also limit or prohibit the estimated 100,000 North Korean laborers estimated to be working outside the country – another important source of North Korean hard currency income.
So far, there has been no indication that China is even considering taking any of these steps, but there is one other possibility. “China can turn the ongoing North Korean escalation of tit-for-tat into an opportunity,” Jasper Kim, director of the Center for Conflict Management at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, told VICE News. “President Xi Jinping has the unique chance to represent the voice of reason and restraint, in contrast to the ongoing bombastic rhetoric, within the international community.”
Such optimism is in short supply among most experts however. As China analyst Bill Bishop told VICE News: “There does not appear to be an outcome that is acceptable to all sides, as it is folly to think Kim will give up the weapons he has developed. Beijing’s preference is to kick the can down a very long road.”