For China, recognising North Korea as a nuclear power may be the most viable way to defuse crisis
Deng Yuwen and Huang Ting believe forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear plans would only provoke it further
Following its nuclear test in January, North Korea provoked renewed international condemnation by sending its latest satellite into orbit last month. By doing so, Pyongyang managed to enhance the international consensus on imposing sanctions and inflamed the sensitivities of neighbouring countries.
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Japan is the largest beneficiary of Pyongyang’s move since the missile crisis gives Tokyo the perfect excuse to develop its own rockets. The US also benefits, as the Pentagon can deploy more advanced weapons to the Korean peninsula. As for South Korea, which enjoys the protection of its ally, the military force of North Korea should not worry it too much; conversely, it could use the occasion to raise a sense of crisis.
In all this, Beijing is the biggest loser. Not only does the crisis put China in a dilemma, it also suggests the failure of its policy on North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Beijing has four main fears. The first is that Washington may step in, posing a threat to China’s security. The second is that the harsh sanctions may irritate Pyongyang and cause a break in China-North Korea relations. Third, that the sanctions will cause the North’s economy to deteriorate to crisis levels, triggering a refugee crisis that would severely impede China’s development. The last concern relates to China’s tradition of non-interference in any country’s internal affairs.
Thus, China is in an awkward position, in which it cannot get tough with Pyongyang, yet does not wish to change its policy towards the North, assuming nothing unexpected happens. However, both in the national interest and for the sake of human rights, it is time for China to reconsider its policy on North Korea.
Of course, even if it weren’t being held back by security worries, Beijing can hardly formulate a policy that serves its own long-term needs without an accurate prediction of where the North Korean regime would go next.
Accurate predictions are usually based on detailed research, information and personal experience. For a totalitarian, closed, impoverished and militaristic regime, however, it is still possible to make some forecasts based on historical experience. We know for starters that the Kim family has maintained its rule through numerous lies and crackdowns, and its military-first politics has bred a large rentier army, especially among the top echelons. So, it’s possible to make the following judgments.
First, Pyongyang will never give up its nuclear programme since this is what ensures the security of the regime. Unless the six-party talks recognise North Korea as a nuclear power, it will not return to negotiations which seek the dismantlement of its nuclear capabilities.
Second, Pyongyang will not open its door to the world and pursue Chinese-style reforms. That’s not only because the North has missed the historical conditions supporting China’s opening up in 1970s, but also because a regime built on lies would immediately be revealed for what it is amid a peaceful evolution.
Thirdly, in order to solve the problem of food supply and support a large army, Pyongyang will promote self-reliance among its citizens, relax economic controls in a limited way and even, to some extent, tolerate the existence of capitalism. However, North Korea is fragile in the long term, given its vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters, while policy mistakes are not uncommon in Pyongyang.
Lastly, the possibility of an internal coup always exists; the moody and unstable nature of the totalitarian regime leads to fear and insecurity that could bubble over into a bloody internal power struggle.
Thus, it would seem that, absent military intervention from the outside, North Korea is very likely to collapse of its own accord over the next decade or so. In other words, it is a regime that is destined to fail.
So it would be unwise to develop and maintain too close a relationship with such a fragile state. Beijing’s No 1 policy priority on North Korea must be to prevent the inevitable refugee crisis following a regime collapse – and possible nuclear leakage or war – from affecting the nation.
Specifically, there are three ways Beijing can deal with the North Korean problem. The best choice would be to end the Kim family’s reign and support the rise of other groups to power while maintaining cooperative relations with South Korea. Seoul has a big incentive to seek leadership change in the North. Even though such actions by Beijing would drive a wedge between the US, Japan and South Korea, Seoul would still agree to cooperate.
To ensure a smooth transition, Beijing could promise to ensure the safety of Kim Jong-un and his family, as well as exempt other people from responsibility. Only in this way could a new regime come to power without a historical burden, open the door to the world and create opportunities for a peaceful union of the peninsula.
An intermediate plan would be to recognise North Korea as a nuclear power and ensure Pyongyang does not carry out further nuclear tests or develop offensive weapons. Given its domestic and foreign challenges, Pyongyang would more than likely concentrate on developing its economy once admitted to the nuclear club. Thus, the collapse of the nation could be delayed – or even prevented.
The worst option would be to seek to force North Korea to give up its nuclear programme, which would definitely provoke Pyongyang into accelerating nuclear weapons development. This would also very likely bring forward regime collapse.
In short, the first plan could be accomplished but it would require great efforts from Beijing. The second – and, most likely – scenario could be grudgingly accepted. As long as there are other options available, the Chinese government should seek to avoid the third scenario at all costs.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. Huang Ting is a researcher at the Innovation and Development Institute, Shenzhen