A Recipe for Increasing Tension
A golf course and a major corporation that specializes in food products (two of its most popular brands are chocolate pie and gum) are not usually in the recipe for an increase in international tensions. But add to the mix an anti-missile system, China’s sense that the U.S. is trying to contain it and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and a blancmange of suspicion can easily rise.
As China’s top political figures gathered for the annual National People’s Congress in the majestic Great Hall of the People, Premier Li Keqiang gave a stark warning on Sunday of “more complicated and graver situations” and “many uncertainties…both inside and outside China.”
He was referring, mainly, to the global economic situation but right on script North Korea launched four ballistic missiles 1,000 km into the sea off its eastern coast on Monday, three of which fell within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland has long been an ambition of Pyongyang and these missiles were part of the development process.
They were also in response to military drills just kicked off between Washington and Seoul which Pyongyang conveniently views as a dress rehearsal for an invasion.
Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are cooling, ironically for lack of fuel. On Feb. 19, Beijing halted imports of North Korean coal — a $1 billion annual harvest for North Korea’s budget — for the rest of the year. China is now fully compliant with the unprecedented UN sanctions it signed on to in March 2016. Pyongyang responded by accusing its increasingly reluctant, and from its point of view no longer fully reliable, sponsors of “dancing to the tune of the US.”
Furthermore, the assassination of Kim Jong-nam — elder half-brother to Kim Jong-Un — by a VX nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13 caused consternation in Beijing. Kim lived mostly in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of Macau and was, ostensibly, under China’s protection.
South Korea had little difficulty in agreeing to host a battery of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense systems. Not surprisingly, Beijing views the agreement to deploy the system as an American strategy of containment. Beijing says the system’s radar allows it to “peek” into China, something Beijing wants to avoid as the South China Sea becomes ever more contentious.
Enter Lotte. China now has the conglomerate in its crosshairs. Lotte has offered land, on a golf course it owns south of Seoul, to be used for THAAD. Many in China are calling for a boycott of its five department stores and around 100 supermarkets which is significant as about a third of its revenue comes from the Chinese market.
Four Lotte stores have been closed in China following “inspections.” South Korean products, which were growing in popularity, have been withdrawn by Chinese travel firms. Eight million Chinese tourists visited South Korea in 2016, up a third from the previous year and exports from South Korea to China account for a quarter of its exports.
But Pyongyang’s continued missile tests strengthen South Korea’s case for the THAAD deployment.
Beijing would like the six-party denuclearization talks which included North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the U.S., and were held from 2003 to 2009 before being rejected by Kim Jong-Il, former leader and father to Kim Jong-Un and Kim Jong-nam, should be restarted, but there is as little appetite for this in either South or North Korea as there seems to be for Lotte products among Chinese officials.