Two Koreas exchange fire across maritime border
Smoke rises from South Korean Yeonpyeong Island after being hit by dozens of artillery shells fired by North Korea November 23, 2010. REUTERS

North Korea's latest tantrum, which has cost the lives of two South Korean soldiers, is a worrying development in the region, which appears to be getting more unstable every year thanks to the unpredictable actions of the murderous regime in Pyongyang.

Earlier this year the North was heavily implicated in the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died. This was followed by nuclear tests in the North and the news last week that the North has a brand spanking new uranium enrichment facility.

The North claims that this facility is for the peaceful purpose of generating electricity (something they are abysmally poor at) and not for warlike reasons. If you will believe that you will believe anything, you might even believe today's claims that the South started firing at them first.

This is the regime that claims to its own people that the aid it receives from around the world is actually tribute from terrified nations, that claims the South and other nations are impoverished hell holes and that claims the lobster-loving economic bungler that rules it is in fact a god. Telling the truth is not the strong point of this regime.

The cause of today's outburst, as with previous outbursts, is far from clear. It could be to do with the succession of Kim Jong Il's son or it could be a reaction to last week's news that the South would be dropping its "Sunshine Policy" of giving aid to the North in the hope that it would change its ways.

Whatever the reason the options for South Korea and the international community are limited for two reasons. First the North's possession of nuclear weapons and second the presence of China.

The North's possession of a few old nukes allows it to initiate minor acts of war against its neighbour, safe in the knowledge that at it will get only a slap on the wrist, or at worst have its aid cut off. Having aid cut off only impoverishes the people more while the communist and "egalitarian" elite enjoy the high life in Pyongyang, so such sanctions are not something that this alleged movement of the people will be losing much sleep over.

If the possession of nuclear weapons gives the North confidence, it is the support of China which gives the regime its very life.

Ever since the days of Mao the North has received support from China to the extent that it was even saved from defeat in the Korean War by Chinese intervention.

Of course the North's other great ally was the Soviet Union (thankfully no longer with us), the collapse of which was a serious blow to the regime. Soviet and Chinese aid long helped the North in its race against the South towards economic development.

It's hard to believe now, but at one stage during the reign of Kim Il Sung the North was performing better than the South (which went through periods of dictatorship) economically. The 1990's however saw the death of both the Soviet Union and Kim Il Sung, paving the way for poverty and starvation in the nation which claims to be a paradise.

Despite this the regime held onto power over its brainwashed and shrinking people (literally due to malnourishment) and are kept there by continuing Chinese support, often in the form of aid.

Indeed the North seems to recognise that it owes its very existence to China, as may be seen from Kim Jong Il's visit to Beijing before announcing the succession of his son. Was he seeking approval for the decision? It's hard to tell, but what is clear is that just as China keeps North Korea in business it is China which can bring it crashing down.

Why do the Chinese put up with having a crazed James Bond villain for a neighbour? Well it began certainly as a case of good old fashioned communist solidarity. Indeed a Chinese friend of mine said that North Korea is just as China was 50 years ago and optimistically suggested it would reform at least economically as China has done.

As well as solidarity there is realpolitik, something China excels at. Not for Beijing is the "ethical foreign policy" so often spoken of in Tony Blair's rhetoric many years ago. China has for long taken advantage of the lack of morals that goes with communism by making deals with those regimes that the West refuses to touch. Robert Mugabe springs to mind.

China is therefore happy to keep North Korea where it is because it prefers the crank next door to a united Korea which would have an economically developed South combined with a nuclear armed North. Re-unification would totally alter the balance of power in the region and would not be desirable for the current major regional power China nor for that matter, Japan.

As long as China supports North Korea, the spectre of war, possibly of the nuclear kind, will always hang over a region which suffered quite enough in the Second World War and in the later Cold War conflicts. But China will always so support North Korea as long as it is run by a realpolitik-focused, morality free Communist Party.

There are few signs that China, often touted as replacing the U.S.A. as the world's superpower this century, will be undergoing regime change any time soon. But it has been said of the Soviet Union that it could last only so long as it could keep handing out medals, vodka and sausages. I'm not quite sure what the equivalent of sausages and vodka is in China, but it seems to be essentially the case that voices and movements for political reform will remain few so long as China's economy continues to develop.

What will happen when the Chinese bubble, so long inflated by the Communist Party, bursts? Should it lead to a new regime in China, it would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the present one in North Korea. We can only hope that if and when such an occurrence happens, it will follow the relatively peaceful example of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and does not turn into a regional bloodbath.