China needs to keep North Korea in check, as much to reassert its own power in the region as to maintain stability
Donald Kirk says China should exert its considerable influence to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, and it can do so in a number of ways without significantly slowing the life-or-death supply of oil and food
China holds the trump card when it comes to curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. As the source of virtually all North Korea’s oil and half its food, Beijing exercises life-or-death power over its protectorate as much as it did in 1950 when Chinese “people’s volunteers” saved the fledgling Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from annihilation in the Korean war.
Now, while China has joined in condemning Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, the question is: To what degree are the Chinese willing to back up their words with deeds?
Yes, China has supported United Nations sanctions after previous nuclear and missile tests – and might support still more sanctions. No, China has not enforced them particularly well while critical goods move from China to North Korea, through private entrepreneurs as well as government agencies.
The Chinese are as puzzled as the rest of the world about what to do about North Korea. They, too, encounter high obstacles to persuading the leaders in Pyongyang to give up or scale down their nuclear and missile ambitions.
The Chinese were reportedly taken aback when they heard the all-female Moranbong troupe from North Korea would feature images of missiles in its programme in Beijing last month. When high officials said they would not grace the group’s show with their presence, the troupe was called home without giving a single performance.
As for the idea of Kim Jong-un making his first visit to Beijing since taking over from his late father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, how can China entertain, much less influence, the young leader when he is clearly not open to advice?
It seemed hardly coincidental that he ordered the nuclear test three days before his 32nd birthday on Friday, just as he ordered the previous test three days before what would have been his father’s 72nd birthday, in February 2013.
The Chinese dilemma over what to do is all the more acute since South Korea, retaliating for the latest nuclear test, has resumed broadcasts over mega loudspeakers across the demilitarised zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean war.
China pressured North Korea in August to negotiate an end to the broadcasts in return for the North’s expressing “regret,” not exactly a fully fledged apology, for the mine explosion that severed the legs of two South Korean army sergeants inside the zone. The sense at the time was that China had exerted strong leverage over North Korea, making clear that Pyongyang had to come to terms.
But what is China going to do now? What if the South Koreans carry on with the broadcasts? And what if North Korea again responds by firing across the demilitarised zone? Could China again persuade senior leaders from the two Koreans to negotiate a mini truce end to the confrontation? China does have a great deal of power, should it choose to use it.
Surely the Chinese could freeze the accounts that North Korea maintains in China for buying and selling products. While Chinese fuel and food keeps the North on life support, China is by far its largest trading partner.
China would doubtless urge North Korea, for the sake of stability on the Korean peninsula, to soften its hard line, to talk over problems with South Korea, to adopt a conciliatory stance.
Moderates, however, may be losing in the factional struggle inside North Korea. The latest victim was Kim Yang-gon, in charge of dealings with South Korea.
His death last month in a motor vehicle “accident” was the latest in a series of “accidents” that have befallen those whose views did not conform with those of the hardliners. He had visited Beijing a number of times and had joined North Korea’s second-ranking leader, Hwang Pyong-so, in the talks with the South Koreans for resolving the August mini crisis.
The Chinese cannot be happy about the demise of Kim Yang-gon, just as they were upset by the fate of Kim Jong-un’s uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, who was believed to be more or less a regent, the North’s second-highest leader, until his execution in December 2013.
Jang, more than anyone else, had forged close relations with China, particularly on economic issues.
So what can or will China do now? It’s not very likely that the Chinese will significantly slow the flow of oil or food, but they can manipulate funding, investment and trade in ways that may not be immediately apparent. The Chinese have invested heavily in joint ventures for mining and other enterprises in North Korea, and Chinese products enter North Korea across the Yalu River from Dandong to Sinuiju, where the North Koreans have opened an economic zone.
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The Chinese also control access across the Tumen River border on the east to the Rason economic zone. They’re not going to stop the traffic entirely, but they could crack down on commerce, including the smuggling that goes on under their watchful eyes.
If the Chinese do not pressure the North, as they are able to do, the US, South Korea and Japan will have to cooperate more closely than ever in order to stand up against North Korean threats.
That’s one more reason for China to hold North Korea in check – in the interests of not just stability in the Korean peninsula, but its power position in Northeast Asia.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea