C3S PaperNo. F002 /2015
Hacking and cyber crimes have been around for a very long time; the major players have been at it for several decades and the for the most it has never been a one way street or any one country in the international community having exclusive rights to this new form of behavior, even classified in some parts of the world as a type of “terrorism”. But hacking and cyber crimes take on a different meaning and connotation when it comes to North Korea—a reclusive regime since the time of “Grand Pa Kim” showing very little signs of change either domestically or with respect to its international behavior.
North Korea has once again hit the headlines and for all the wrong reasons again—this time around not for firing off missiles near South Korea or the waters near Japan, but for hacking into Sony Pictures that were going to air a move “The Interview” depicting a plot to get rid of the present strongman Kim Jong Un. The Obama administration did not waste time in tracking down the hacking to the foot-steps of North Korea even while others had a different story. Some argued that it was an inside job within Sony involving a disgruntled worker while others pointed to a North Korean role via its primary benefactor, China.
The retribution from the United States was quick even if not on quite expected lines. For a country that is perhaps the most sanctioned individually and multi-laterally through the United Nations, Pyongyang once again faced the wrath of Washington by way of “additional” punitive measures. And North Korea faced severe internet outages for a few days —from a source that need not be guessed by a rocket scientist or a Nobel Laureate.
In many ways the hacking and the response could just be beginning of a new form of brinksmanship that would have troubling consequences to the region of East Asia, including China. And at the same time it should also draw attention in that region and beyond on ways to bring that reclusive and yet stubborn country out of a destructionist path that bodes trouble to the international community as a whole also.
The latest crisis also points to the fact that it is only China that can perhaps have a “controlling” effect on the North Korean leader and his actions. The emphasis on the word “perhaps” is because there is a school of thought that believes that Beijing may have already lost its once formidable clout over the scheme of things in Pyongyang and is now at a point of time carefully weighing its diplomatic and political options especially in how much of a strategic asset Kim Jong Un is presently given his acts since the time he has come to power, especially on the nuclear front.
The actions of Kim in the Korean peninsula and with Japan have raised a lot of disturbing questions in China even among the top military elites that have long protected three Kims over the last six decades or more. Some argue that things have come to such a pass that North Korea has become a domestic political issue within China—the latest one being that of a North Korean soldier cross the border and gunning down four Chinese citizens towards the close of 2014. Official China found it difficult to discuss the incident domestically let alone take on North Korea in the fashion it might have if South Korea or Japan were involved in a similar incident.
If China is in a rock and a hard place, much of it is of its own making. Over valuing the strategic aspect of the bilateral relationship especially in the context of the United States’ position in South Korea, China lavished the North with economic and energy assistance—and still continues to do so to a very large extent. But in the process Beijing also parted with something it ought not to have—blueprints and hardware for nuclear and missile technology—and willfully watched Pyongyang as it entered the proliferation business either on its own or in collusion with other failed client states such as Pakistan.
Riding on the tiger may be easy but it is very difficult to dismount and in the case of North Korea with relations dipping to new lows and a clamour in certain influential sections of the military elite in China to put a distance in the bilateral relationship. The military-to-military relationship may never have been strong between the two East Asian countries but the fact remains that Pyongyang has a nuclear and missile arsenal that must now be of utmost concern to even China. “The general state of relations between North Korea and China is hard. If China presses D.P.R.K. too hard it could collapse. But if it doesn’t press hard enough it will become uncontrolled and do more things like nuclear tests”, The New York Times quotes Zheng Jiyong, the Director of the Centre for Korean Studies at Fudan University, China.
In all the goings-on there is a lesson for the United States as well. Mustering support to further isolate North Korea and diplomatically roping in China for the purpose is one thing. But getting on to a tit-for-tat game with the regime in Pyongyang may not yield the desired results as North Korea is not exactly the perfect example of a rational actor model in international relations. And rattling the nerves of North Korea may unsettle South Korea for fear of what is in store—after all Seoul too has its share of responsibility for Pyongyang’s intransigence.
(A Columnist with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami has been a senior journalist with The Hindu in Chennai, Singapore and Washington and currently Heads the Departments of Journalism and Mass Communications and International Relations at SRM University, Chennai and can be reached at email@example.com . Views expressed here are personal.)