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Beijing’s big gamble: Can it control North Korea?

Editor’s note: The idea for this story was suggested by a GlobalPost member. What do you think we should cover?

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TOKYO, Japan — It should come as no surprise that the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was one of the few world leaders to congratulate North Korea on last week’s meeting of ruling party cadres in Pyongyang.

Viewed through the prism of Western liberal democracy, China is at best the only remaining conduit for engaging with the North; at worst it is an apologist for a uniquely grotesque dictatorship with a nuclear capability in its grasp.

That dictatorship looks poised to continue well into the future as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il readies his son, Kim Jong Un, to assume power. Kim Jong Un, believed to be 27 or 28, was named a general in the country’s powerful army last week and appeared in public for the first time Tuesday during a live-fire military exercise, North Korea’s official news agency reported.

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Beijing has won praise for hosting multiparty talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and has, on occasion, appeared exasperated by its ally’s unpredictable behaviour. And as North Korea reels from international sanctions and precarious ties with its erstwhile benefactor South Korea, Chinese largesse could be all that stands between the regime and catastrophic implosion.

But there are times, too, when China’s refusal to confront the worst excesses of North Korean Stalinism would be comical if the stability of an entire region were not at stake.

Witness how it routinely blocks resolutions against Pyongyang in the U.N. Security Council, or its failure to condemn the March sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, apparently by a North Korean torpedo.

And take Hu’s congratulatory message, in which, according to the South Korean media, he praised the Korean Workers’ Party’s “success” in turning North Korea into “a strong and prosperous nation, in developing the national economy, [and] in improving the people’s livelihood.”

Yet the alternative to the wretched status quo — regime instability, military conflict with the South and its allies and, eventually, the reunification of the Korean peninsula — is enough to strike fear into the hardest Chinese hearts.

China’s priority is to thwart any eventuality that could see millions of refugees streaming across the countries’ 1,415-km border, close to a region historically riven with ethnic tensions between Beijing and the local non-Han Korean population.

“If North Korea collapses, and as we expect, South Korea wants slow and steady reunification, it will put a large, economically dynamic country right on China’s border,” said Andrew Horvat, a China specialist at the Stanford Japan Center at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

“South Korea is a foothold of U.S. power and military bases, so from a Chinese perspective, as long as its interests are protected it doesn’t care too much. It would rather have a failing state than a really successful state adjacent to a [Chinese] region with lots of ethnic Koreans.

“That doesn’t mean that China isn’t worried about collapse; it just doesn’t want collapse to lead to reunification. It doesn’t care if North Korea remains a weak and corrupt regime, even one that is dabbling in nuclear weapons.”

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Scott Snyder, director of the Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy in Washington, agrees that Beijing’s every interaction with North Korea is influenced by one overarching aim: to prevent its neighbor’s disintegration.

“For China, the bottom line is that regional instability or collapse endangers China’s economic interests and might result in a unified Korea that might be unfriendly to China or antagonistic to China’s security interests,” he told GlobalPost.

With that troubling scenario in mind, China has started prodding the North to introduce reforms to its command economy. The benefits to Beijing are clear: more bilateral trade, and access to the North’s ports and mineral resources.

A botched currency revaluation at the end of last year designed, in part, to clamp down on private enterprise, persistent food shortages make a mockery of North Korean claims that the state alone can provide for its people.

“Chinese engagement provides a safety valve and a guarantee to the North that it need not fear the recent announcement of stepped-up U.S. bilateral sanctions,” Snyder wrote in a recent essay for Yale Global. “It also suggests that the threat of U.S. sanctions against North Korea is increasingly likely to be a paper tiger.”

Kim, by all accounts, was impressed by what he saw of China’s capitalist-driven development during a recent summit with Hu in the Chinese city of Changchun, his second foray across the border in just four months.

But does China wield as much influence over the North as some suggest? Hajime Izumi, a professor of international relations at the University of Shizuoka in Japan, said the world is prone to overstate Beijing’s diplomatic leverage and its interest in economic reform.

“China doesn’t have enough influence to alter North Korean policy,” he said. “It can’t force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, and as for the succession issue, it has to exercise the principle of non-interference. All Hu would have done at the summit was authorize the process.

“Everything China does arises from mistrust of the North Korean leadership. The People’s Liberation Army is particularly worried that if China pushes too hard for change, that North Korea will react. There could even be conflict.”

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Despite Kim’s reported reaffirmation of his commitment to nuclear talks, Horvat says maintaining nuclear tensions on the peninsula works to China’s advantage.

“China puts up with the nuclear issue because it receives enormous diplomatic benefits. It’s almost as if it prefers a problem to a solution,” he said.

It is possible, though, that the North is more receptive to pressure for reform as it counts the cost, in dwindling aid and depleted foreign currency reserves, of U.N. and U.S. sanctions imposed in the wake of nuclear and missile tests and its involvement in the Cheonan sinking.

North Korea, Snyder said, is “desperately seeking foreign investment” to achieve its oft-stated goal of emerging as a “strong and prosperous” nation by 2012.

Reports of the Kim-Hu summit said economic reform was high on the agenda. Beijing may have also given its blessing to the North’s succession plans. What isn’t clear is whether it was able to secure guarantees of good behavior from Kim Jong Il in return.

But given the delicate state of Kim’s health, the long interregnum in nuclear talks and lingering regional tensions over the Cheonan, it could be that China, for all the despair its North Korea policy inspires, represents the best hope of stability in a dangerously volatile country.