North Korea has tested a series of ICBMs in the past six months. Photo: Reuters / KCNA

China and Russia deplored a recent summit on North Korea in the coastal Canadian city of Vancouver on January 16, denouncing what they described as the “Cold War thinking” behind it.

Moscow considered the ministerial-level meeting that “involved former members of the coalition” formed during the 1950-53 Korean War “as a revival of the Cold War approach and mentality.”

Beijing was even firmer, stating that the meeting, co-hosted by Canada and United States, was “Cold War mentality, pure and simple” because it was held “under the banner of the so-called UN Command sending states.” For China, the United Nations Command was “a product of the Cold War era” that “has long lost its relevance.”

There is some truth in these statements.

As reported by the Canadian government, 20 nations attended the conference. Except for Japan and South Korea, all of them were countries that sent troops or humanitarian aid to the US-led UN Command (UNC) that defended the South (Republic of Korea) against the communist North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and its allies during the three-year war.

Four days before the Vancouver conference, an official of the US Department of State also confirmed that the meeting was “based on sending states” and as “China and Russia were not sending states” they weren’t invited.

Indeed, Soviet Russia and notably the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were the DPRK’s main defenders in the military conflict that took place at the height of the Cold War.

As reported by its state media, in 2010, when the PRC commemorated the 60th anniversary of its participation in the Korean War, Xi Jinping, China’s then vice-president and now president, hailed the involvement of the Chinese troops, the People’s Volunteer Army, in what he called “a great and just war for safeguarding peace and resisting aggression.” Xi “also acknowledged the former Soviet Union’s … help to the volunteer arm.”

Thus, if the UNC was a Cold War product, so was North Korea. The difference is that while China claimed that the command had “long lost its relevance,” for the US, its allies – and perhaps a majority of the international community – the threat the UNC was created to deal with nearly seven decades ago remains prominent.

At a joint press conference with her counterparts from the US, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom on January 16, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said, “North Korea is one of the greatest threats the world is facing today, and it is what brings us here to Vancouver.”

North Korea a real threat

Indeed, while the legitimacy and necessity of the Vancouver meeting of the UNC sending states are debatable, it’s indisputable that the hostile and nuclear-armed country is posing a real, if not existential, threat to global security and prosperity.

A former US defense secretary recently commented that the risk of nuclear catastrophe was now greater than during the Cold War, while a retired US Navy admiral specified that never before had North Korea and the US been closer to a nuclear war.

A recent survey of 1,000 international experts by the World Economic Forum ranked nuclear war among the top man-made threats to global stability in 2018. Pope Francis likewise warned that the world was on the brink of nuclear war.

While US President Donald Trump’s brinkmanship and unpredictability are a factor, the threat of a nuclear clash primarily comes from an dictatorial, aggressive and nuclear-empowered regime in Pyongyang.

In his 2010 remarks, Xi Jinping also described the Korean War, which ended in an armistice in 1953, as “a great victory gained by the united combat forces of China’s and the DPRK’s civilians and soldiers, and a great victory in the pursuit of world peace and human progress.”

With the nuclear threat it is now posing, many would doubt whether the North Korea that China defended in – and together with it, “won” –  the military conflict 65 years ago is contributing anything to “world peace.”

Apparently, it isn’t contributing anything to “human progress,” either.

Stark differences

In his remarks at the Vancouver conference, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recalled that nearly seven decades ago, the UNC sending states came “to fight for freedom on the Korean Peninsula” and “through great sacrifice secured freedom” for the ROK’s people. The Untied States’ top diplomat then pointed out that “the differences between freedom and democracy” in South Korea were “striking when compared [with] the conditions of life for the people who live under the tyranny of the regime in North Korea.”

That’s why in her statement, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha expressed gratitude to all those who sacrificed to defend her country’s then “fledgling democracy,” which has now “become a beacon of freedom, democracy, and economic vitality in Northeast Asia and beyond.”

Undoubtedly, the South and the North are worlds apart in all aspects even though both occupy the same peninsula, have the same ethnicity and shared the same history until mid-1940s. One is a flourishing economy and democracy that threatens no country, whereas the other has lived, for the past seven decades, under a hereditary and tyrannical regime that not only brutally oppresses its people, but also threatens the world with its missiles and nuclear weapons.

Perhaps it isn’t wrong to say that the DPRK is a shambolic and dangerous Cold War anachronism, if not the biggest remaining Cold War problem facing the world. Though the Soviet Union collapsed and thereby the Cold War ended nearly three decades ago and other communist countries have hitherto transformed politically and/or economically, North Korea remains a totalitarian Stalinist state, with a Cold War mentality and behavior.

By holding the Vancouver meeting and excluding China and Russia from it, perhaps the US and its allies wanted to remind Beijing, Moscow and the world of that fact.

In this sense, the gathering was not only aimed at maximizing pressure on North Korea and forcing it to denuclearize. It was also probably intended to pressure China and Russia to do more to rein in the wayward country’s nuclear and missile ambitions.

After all, not only did the PRC and Russia defend their communist ally during the Korean War, but they have also been Pyongyang’s main political and economic supporters ever since. China is currently the reclusive state’s biggest trader and only treaty ally.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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