Trade and industry, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

6 October 2016

China may be wary of North Korea’s rise as a nuclear power, but they’re also afraid to push too hard against the Hermit Kingdom in case it increases the country’s defiance, Donald Kirk writes.

China might want to punish North Korea for its missile and nuclear tests, but that’s not likely to happen.

That pessimistic view reflects a few central principles of the perpetual confrontation between North and South Korea. The first is that China, looming across the Tumen River on the east side of the Korean peninsula and the Yalu River on the west, needs North Korea, technically a communist state, as a buffer against its capitalist foes, South Korea, Japan – and, of course, the United States.

The second is that China is incensed by the decision of South Korea, at the strong urging of the US, to agree on the US placing batteries of missiles capable of shooting down North Korean super-missiles 100 miles above the earth’s surface. While the US says it won’t open fire on China using THAAD, the acronym for Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, the Chinese aren’t buying that argument.

Third, China views the entire Korean peninsula, both North and South Korea, as within its historical sphere of influence and prioritises “stability” above getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

For all these reasons, China’s purported cooperation, spurred by the US, in an investigation of a firm in Dandong, the large Chinese city across the Yalu from the North Korean city of Sinuiju, is more sham than substance. Yes, the Chinese may make a show of freezing some of the assets of Hongxiang Industrial Development, the conglomerate in question, but that gesture will not have much real impact.

More on this: Living with nuclear North Korea:Is it time for the West to face the North’s nuclear reality?

True, Hongxiang may not be able to engage in multi-million-dollar transactions with North Korea with quite as much impunity as before. The company may also temporarily cease shipping chemicals the US is sure it was selling the North Koreans for the purpose of fuelling warheads. Nonetheless, Hongxiang and others will return to business as usual with North Korea while the investigation slowly fizzles.

The Chinese game is to appear to cooperate with the US, its largest export market and with which it enjoys an enormous trade surplus. Meanwhile, an ill-disguised network operates beneath the radar of UN Security Council sanctions – sanctions which were imposed with China’s formal assent. Such transactions may not be tallied in official records but are central to China’s relationship with North Korea.

Ongoing sub rosa trade with North Korea in the face of UN sanctions reflects China’s policy of keeping North Korea on life support. The Chinese may not like North Korea, but they are horrified by the prospect of North Korea utterly collapsing – and the whole Korean peninsula falling into chaos or under US-backed South Korean rule.

Under such circumstances, the Chinese believe they have no choice but to supply North Korea with all the oil needed to fuel its dilapidated economy and half the food required for a hungry populace — transactions not excluded by the sanctions. And that’s also why China responds with studied ambivalence to pleas from the US and others to exercise its full influence over North Korean leaders.

In fact, the Chinese are in a difficult if not untenable position vis-à-vis North Korea. If there’s one country that inspires more intense dislike in Pyongyang than the US or Japan, it’s China. North Koreans dislike the Chinese all the more knowing how dependent they are on them, dating back to the dark days of the Korean War when Chinese forces had to rescue the North from defeat by the combined forces of the US and South Korea.

More on this: Are there any prospects for denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula?

Forced to rely on the Chinese for survival, North Korean leaders make a show of defying them. The North’s missile and nuclear program may provide a “defence” against the US and South Korea, but on another deeper level the North’s refusal to give up its precious nukes is one way of standing up against China’s wishes as well.

Cognizant of North Korean sensitivities and attitudes, Chinese negotiators prefer not to focus on nukes and missiles during frantic missions to Pyongyang.

Rather, they seek to dissuade the North Koreans from staging “incidents” that may fuel tensions on the Korean peninsula. In moments of crisis – such as the August 2015 incident where a North Korean mine blew off the legs of two South Korean army sergeants inside the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas ­– the Chinese have to persuade the North Koreans to cool down. Chinese intervention was evident in North Korea sending a high-level official for talks at the Korean War truce village of Panmunjom that wound up with him expressing “regret” over the incident – not quite an apology but close enough.

Implicit in such Chinese pressure is their ability to turn off the spigot that controls the flow of oil into the North, as they’ve been known to do briefly from time to time.

That’s about as far, however, as the Chinese really want to go in reining in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. They may be wary of North Korea’s rise as a nuclear power, and they may step in to suspend one Chinese company or another from doing business with the North, but they’re afraid to push too hard.

Their worst fear is that excessive pressure on North Korea will boomerang, increasing the defiance of North Korean leaders. Let them have their nukes, the Chinese seem to say, as long as we’re sure they’ll never use them except as a tool for deterring the Americans, Japanese and South Koreans from taking over the North — and challenging China.

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Kirk, Donald. 2016. "China’S Delicate North Korea Balancing Act - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.