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Don’t Wish North Korea on China

By Mark Tokola

When discussing what to do about North Korea, it is often suggested that China should do more to pressure North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program, stop military provocations, create a more constructive relationship with South Korea, and improve the lives of North Koreans.  Chinese representatives usually say this is exactly what China is doing: China’s critics say that judging by the recent history of North Korean behavior, if that is what China is doing, it obviously is not doing it enough.

It is worth unpacking some of the assumptions behind the belief that China should do more to push North Korea in the right direction.  One is that China has leverage over North Korea.  Observers believe that China provides most of North Korea’s energy supply and consumer products, and around half of its food.  But does that translate into leverage?  It would only be leverage if, on one side of the equation, China was able to find consensus among its competing, internal views on the utility of pressuring North Korea, and on the other, if North Korea actually would change its behavior in the face of such external pressure.  Judging by how the Pyongyang regime survived mass starvation during the 1990s famine, it has shown a ruthless capacity to survive hardship.  The United States, which has shown more eagerness than China to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear program and its military provocations, has always targeted its sanctions toward members of the North Korean regime, not towards the North Korean people, who have suffered enough.  It is hard to imagine that the U.S. would want China to do what it would not, to squeeze North Korea by inflicting misery on the North Korean people by reducing their available amount of food and energy.

Taking the blunt tool of a general economic quarantine off the table, there obviously are other measures China could take to increase pressure North Korea: reducing investments in specific projects, showing official displeasure with North Korean behavior through government and official media statements, withholding official visits, and allowing UN resolutions aimed at condemning North Korea’s human rights record to pass without a Chinese veto.  There are signs that some of this is happening.  China’s support for North Korea has been increasingly muted and the tempo of visits has fallen.  It is also possible to believe without evidence that China has sent blunt messages to Pyongyang about which neither side has spoken about publicly.

From the Chinese perspective, calibrating pressure on North Korea is a delicate business.  There are reasons for China to do more.  It is desirable for China that North Korea end its nuclear weapons program.  As long as it continues, there is increased likelihood that South Korea, or even Japan, might feel the need to follow suit with nuclear deterrence of their own, a nightmare for China.  Being one of a few nuclear weapons states is better for China than being one of many, in Asia and beyond.  North Korea has shown interest in proliferating nuclear weapons beyond its border, to Syria for example, mostly for profit.  Beyond even that and despite the durability of its regime, no one would describe North Korea as a safe bet for long-term internal stability.  Turmoil inside North Korea could lead to a loss of control over its nuclear weapons storage.  For non-state actors to acquire nuclear weaponry on China’s borders would be an alarming development for China.  There is also a large intangible element in the embarrassment for China of being unable to prevent its one formal military ally, the DPRK, from becoming an international pariah through its crude and cruel behavior.  Contrasting the United States’ alliance with a prosperous and internationally respected Republic of Korea with China’s alliance with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China clearly has gotten the short end of the stick.  North Korea is China’s biggest foreign policy failure.

But, China also feels deeply restrained in how much it is prepared to pressure North Korea.  By far, the highest priority for China on the Korean peninsula is to maintain stability.  In case of a collapse of the North Korean government, the flow of refugees into China (into a region already heavily populated by ethnic Koreans); the risk of a possible, unwanted confrontation with the United States and its allies; the upheaval in China’s relations with South Korea (of increasing economic interest to China), and the financial and diplomatic distraction of having to be involved in negotiations regarding the future of a unified Korean peninsula, would be a series of headaches that China would wish to avoid.  The current situation in Korea is uncomfortable for China; but the collapse of the North Korean regime could be disastrous.  China is mindful, therefore, that whatever pressure it might apply on North Korea, it cannot be so much as to push the North Korean regime off the edge of the table.  Even though tough, North Korea could be brittle.  Too much Chinese pressure could break it.

Beyond tactical calculations of what China might do to nudge North Korea in the right direction, there is another, deeper assumption in the China-should-do-more thesis.  Assuming that China is responsible for North Korea’s behavior might be one side of a coin that on its other side posits that North Korea is within China’s legitimate sphere of influence.  Is that something to which we should agree?  If we want to assert that North Korea is “China’s problem,” is that very different from acknowledging that Ukraine is “Russia’s problem”?  One of the great foreign policy challenges of the 21st century is to decide whether China and Russia have a legitimate, recognizable national interest in being able to veto decisions made in smaller, neighboring countries.  It is an unsettled question.  It is an assertion they seem prepared to make, but there is a countervailing principle that all nations have the sovereign right to ally and trade with whom they choose.  That principle, enshrined in the UN charter, is probably too pure to survive untarnished in real-life geopolitics, but it is a good basis from which to begin diplomacy rather than to end it.  China has a responsibility to apply agreed-upon UN sanctions on North Korea and historic reasons to engage the regime in Pyongyang more than would be expected of other countries, but we should not wish North Korea on China.  The historic exercise of drawing lines on maps to determine who is responsible for whom usually has ended badly.  We all have a responsibility to have a policy towards North Korea.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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