The “North Korea problem” — meaning North Korea’s threats to use its missiles and nuclear weapons against South Korea, Japan, and/or the United States and set off a global conflagration — demands a solution. The narrative heard in the US and pretty much around the world is that China holds the key.
North Korea, it is argued, is extremely economically dependent on China. In fact, Beijing has leverage over Pyongyang such that it can persuade or force North Korea to desist from testing its nuclear weapons and missiles and even get rid of them.
But China has done little. It can and should do much more.
This account is partly true, partly exaggerated, and partly false. China’s policies and its national interests are misunderstood or ignored, and Beijing has been given little credit for what it has done and is doing.
What is true about the narrative?
The pitch that North Korea is heavily reliant on China’s financial aid (including investments that are not expected to be repaid) and trade is true. One might even say that North Korea is linked at the hip to China economically and cannot do without China.
China has, varying from year to year, provided upward of 70 percent of North Korea’s energy and consumer goods and a large portion of its food aid. China is by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner — at times equal to or ahead of all of its other contacts combined.
North Korea’s dependence on China for sure buys Beijing influence with the North Korean government. China has been allowed an in-country presence to construct aid and investment projects. China has even been granted the right to station its troops in North Korea to protect its investments and ensure that refugees do not cross the border into China.
Indeed, China can influence North Korea’s policies and its behavior.
What is exaggerated about the narrative of North Korea’s ties to China?
North Korea has not become as submissive to China’s wishes as one might suppose. North Korean leaders have not taken China’s advice to reform its economy toward a free market and open trade regime with capitalist incentives. It has not stopped engaging in terrorism (which China clearly does not approve of). It has not heeded China’s warnings about its nuclear weapons and missile tests.
North Korean officials have openly expressed hostility toward China. Reportedly, Kim Jong-un did not consult China before doing the recent nuclear weapons and missile tests. On occasion, North Korean leaders have said they can get along easier with President Trump than Chinese officials. There have even been reports of the North Korean government overseeing or at least turning a blind eye to kidnapping Chinese citizens for ransom.
For their part, Chinese leaders regard North Korea as obdurate and ungrateful and its leaders as unhinged. They say openly that North Korea is a menace to world peace. They are also convinced that they can do little to change this. Alas, Chinese pressure on North Korea to change for the most part has been, and is, ineffective.
This has been more pronounced in recent months. Recently, Chinese citizens visiting North Korea have reported that the local police have threatened them for offering food to North Koreans suffering from malnutrition.
How are China’s policies toward North Korea misunderstood?
China has important national interests at stake in its relationship with North Korea. These interests are not understood by the US and the global community. Nor are the likely results of China’s actions to get North Korea to change.
Applying strict Chinese sanctions against North Korea would cause widespread deprivation, even starvation, in North Korea. It would be difficult to predict the final results. Worse North Korean behavior? More terrorism? More extortion? The collapse of the government? An army coup?
Sanctions would very likely result in China experiencing a refugee dilemma — possibly millions of North Koreans fleeing across the border into China. The way to deal with it might be to mine the border and/or shoot people who cross it and violate China’s sovereignty. The expected reaction from the Western media and probably many Western leaders would be a resounding condemnation of China for its actions.
China’s most salient concern is the collapse of the North Korean regime. North Korea currently serves as a buffer zone between China and US forces that might move north to a position just across the Yalu River. One need to recall the last time this happened — in 1950 — and the results.
There are nearly 30 thousand US military personnel in South Korea. A reunified Korea governed by South Korea is definitely not something Chinese leaders would welcome (or tolerate) for strategic reasons.
Recently, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged that it is not the intention of the US to see regime change in North Korea or Korea’s reunification. The US only wants a denuclearized, peaceful North Korea, he proclaimed.
China signed on to UN resolutions applying severe sanctions against North Korea. This was a critical decision for Beijing and it gave the sanctions teeth they would not have had otherwise.
But can Chinese leaders believe this? They have heard this before. They have also observed the US, over a period of two-plus decades, making concessions (that many observers called appeasement), promises, and threats to get North Korea to moderate its behavior. None produced positive results; in fact, the situation got worse.
Will President Donald Trump’s policy be different? Chinese leaders have good reason to think it will be. But they are also hesitant. After all the Democratic Party, half of Republicans, the media, Hollywood, and academe in the US oppose nearly everything Trump does and almost daily there are calls to investigate and impeach him.
The US also demands that North Korea stop selling nuclear weapons and missiles including technology of any kind to other countries. But North Korea sorely needs the money it makes from this, estimated to amount to USD 1.5 billion annually (9 percent of North Korea’s gross domestic product).
Washington has said little about how North Korea is to manage economically if the sanctions work. Is China to provide it increased financial help? When? Not now, but later? Under what conditions?
The US also wants North Korea to open up and join the rest of the world. But North Korea is a very closed country and its citizens know very little about the world. The government would likely be imperiled and might even fall if its citizens were to learn what its rulers have told them throughout their lifetimes is not true and they have been kept from the pleasures and excitement of the modern world.
What is left out of the narrative and what is untrue about China’s help to North Korea and its consequent influence?
China’s foreign aid to North Korea in the past was provided at great cost and sacrifice to China. Why? North Korea was important to China given the threat level to China in Northeast Asia. North Korea was China’s only formal ally (with which it had, and still has, a security treaty).
China’s aid to North Korea also helped to prevent at least to some degree Pyongyang from engaging in terrorism and practicing extortion that was an important means to sustain its economy. North Korean leaders even said this.
At times Beijing has taken direct punitive actions toward North Korea to pressure it to stop its reckless behavior. When Macau (a former Portuguese colony) became part of China in 1999, North Korean money laundering and counterfeiting of US hundred-dollar bills there ceased. On one occasion, China cut off oil supplies to North Korea to express its dissatisfaction with its provocative policies.
In recent months, in the wake of North Korea conducting more weapons tests — including a hydrogen bomb test (that constitutes a major escalation of its capacity to do harm to other countries) and missile tests (proving it can hit countries further away and with greater accuracy) — and what appeared to be new resolve on the part of the US and the United Nations to finally do something, China moved the needle in its policy toward North Korea’s provocations.
China signed on to UN resolutions that applied severe sanctions against North Korea. This was a critical decision for Beijing and it gave the sanctions teeth they would not have had otherwise. China also adopted other trade actions to punish Pyongyang. According to some estimates, this will impact 90 percent of North Korea’s exports.
China did this in spite of several arguments made by North Korea. One was, if Kim Jong-un gave up his nuclear weapons and missiles, he would meet a fate similar to Muammar al-Qaddafi when he surrendered his nuclear program — being bombed by the US and its allies and then being executed by his opponents. Two, North Korea “only wants to be treated fairly,” like India and Pakistan that are no longer the targets of global pressure to scrap their weapons of mass destruction.
Also, China has made domestic sacrifices to do what it did. The areas in China adjacent to North Korea have lost revenues from exports; this has hurt their economies, which were already in poor shape (part of China’s rust belt). Beijing even forfeited support from some Third World countries.
China has taken other measures to help the US deal with North Korea. During the course of rising tensions between the US and North Korea, Chinese leaders met with the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford Jr., and established a new military communications mechanism. This dampens the argument made by President Trump’s opponents that his policies are liable to lead to war with China.
Chinese leaders evidently see that they can no longer gain any advantage by exploiting North Korea’s antics, that North Korea has destabilized Northeast Asia to China’s disadvantage, and that its pushing South Korea and Japan to enhance their military power (and even think about going nuclear) is not in China’s interest.
Another reason for Chinese leaders to support President Trump is that the Western media does not like China and is hypercritical of its government on human rights matters, pollution, control over the Internet, etc. while saying less or even ignoring these problems in other countries. President Trump is different.
In conclusion, China has changed its policies toward North Korea to comport with US objectives. If the North Korea crisis is defused without military confrontation, China must be given much credit.