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China’s Costly Inaction

A North Korean soldiers patrols the Sino-Korean border. Source:

It is in China’s interest as of late to start exerting real influence over North Korea. China has been wary of alienating its long-time ally in fear that an even more belligerent North Korea could erupt the Korean peninsula into a crisis that would surely draw it into the fray. Its official interests were to maintain stability in Korea at all costs – even at the cost of propping up an evil regime that has been detrimental to its national interests. Regrettably, this course of action has led to continued embarrassment and trouble for China.

The recent execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was symbolic of the North’s defiance. Jang was widely seen as China’s most reliable partner in bringing out economic reform in North Korea. Time after time, the North Koreans have disappointed Beijing. Emboldened by operating under China’s defense umbrella, North Korea has propelled its nuclear program forward despite China’s demand to denuclearize. It placed Beijing into a sticky situation after sinking a South Korean Naval Corvette, the ROKS Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors. China sullied its reputation by not condemning North Korea after the incident and refusing to do so again in 2010 when North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong, killing two civilians. Beijing continuously receives a headache due to the North’s reckless provocations, which directly undermines China’s interest in keeping Korea stable.

China’s ideal version of North Korea would be an ally that opens its economy to the rest of the world, and moderates its socialist ideology to the extent China has. China would love to have North Korea model its own successful integration into the global community. But instead, its militaristic ally continues to be isolationist, totalitarian, and unpredictable as ever. North Korea is a massive disappointment for China, and is increasingly seen by many Chinese leaders as a nuisance. China’s state-run newspaper, the ‘Global Times’ even wrote that: “There used to be some sympathy in Asia for North Korea and its striving defiance of the US and others that it sees as enemies. But now, even China, the long viewed ally of North Korea, sees North Korea’s defiance as a nuisance.”

In light of this shaky relationship, a window of opportunity is open for China to make a meaningful change in the poverty-stricken pariah state. North Korea’s totalitarian apparatus is arguably at its most vulnerable state ever since the founding of the country. Kim Jong Un, the latest in the line of Kims to rule North Korea, is still trying to consolidate his power. As the youngest head of state in the world, he is seen by the North Korean elite and even amongst commoners as inexperienced. He is unable to command the respect that his grandfather and father drew from the ruling elite. Hidden camera footage smuggled out North Korea as seen in a PBS documentary: Frontline: The Secret State of North Korea show both a top level party official and a young soldier secretly express their lack of confidence in the young leader. The same documentary also highlights the advent of factionalism within the ruling elite, a phenomenon never before seen in North Korea under Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un is insecure and paranoid, and does not have the united backing of the political elite. The recent execution of his uncle as a traitor is yet a high profile symptom of the tensions bubbling within North Korea’s leadership.

Beijing cannot afford to wait for Kim Jong Un to further purge his political opponents and establish stability via a long trail of bloodshed. Beijing must pounce while North Korea is still weak, and most susceptible to Chinese leverage.

China has the power to utilize its vast economic leverage over North Korea to great effect. Kim Jong Un cannot sustain his regime or his country without the vast amounts of food, energy, and monetary aid that flows from the Chinese border. North Korea also depends on the mutual defense treaty with China that promises Chinese military aid in the event of “any external attack” on North Korea. This treaty is set to expire in 2021, and the Chinese could threaten to not re-sign the treaty, or revoke the treaty altogether to leave North Korea completely vulnerable security-wise.

This threat, along with a serious warning to shut off all economic aid to North Korea will definitely give China the leverage it wants over North Korea. Kim Jong Un faces a dilemma all dictators face. He knows that he needs to open up more economic and civil liberties if he wants to stay in power, but he also fears that opening up too much will result in his ouster. The prospect of losing all of the economic aid he needs to just simply keep him in power or to run his country, along with the fear of losing China as a military ally is a powerful impetus for Kim to take China’s demands seriously. Tragically, the negative humanitarian impact of such an action would undoubtedly cause even greater suffering for the North Korean people. Thus hopefully the threat alone would compel Kim to accede to Beijing’s demands without causing real suffering for the North Korean people. Yet even if China carried out its threat, it is a tragic, yet necessary bout of short term suffering that will result in longer-term benefits for the people of North Korea, China, and the international community.

Already the North Korean government and its party cadres exploit the vast majority of food aid that is sent to the country, and very little of it actually reaches the hungry masses of the country. If a comprehensive shut-off in aid (especially with regards to military aid) were to take place, the institutions and infrastructure that supports the totalitarian state apparatus would crumble. The North Korean people would have to adapt in the meantime to survive, while Kim Jong Un’s besieged regime scrambles to preserve its rapidly deteriorating power. Eventually, the complete lack of economic support from outside would prove Kim Il Sung’s ideology of Juche (self-reliance) fails to hold up against economic reality. Even the military would suffer and starve, and with the current level of factionalism already entrenched within the elite, the sheer deterioration of the nation and increased level of social unrest may even deepen these rifts to the point of inciting open rebellion against the Kim regime. Hopefully the pain from this hypothetical shut-off is short, and is quickly alleviated with the immediate resumption of aid once Kim Jong Un’s regime is either deposed or forced to accept China’s demands for reform.

While we shouldn’t expect China to desire reunification in the Korean peninsula, we know that China wants its own national interests realized in North Korea. China has a chance to show that it is the power to be reckoned with when it comes to Sino-North Korean relations. China has the opportunity to make decisive moves that can help push North Korea towards liberalization and moderation that it has always desired. Or at the very least, China could lay the foundations for the denuclearization of North Korea, a result that would greatly benefit all parties. What is certain is that the window of opportunity is closing, and that time is of the essence. China needs to act now if it wants to put an end to North Korea’s streak of recklessness, and its ungrateful exploitation of China’s support.

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