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Beijing’s Growing Inability to Control Pyongyang

Ted Carpenter, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
May 23, 2014
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As rumors swirl that North Korea plans to conduct another nuclear test, China is apparently trying to dissuade its volatile ally from taking such a provocative step.  According to Reuters, although Beijing has not issued a public warning, it has used various “diplomatic channels” to convey its wishes to Kim Jong-un’s regime.  China adopted a similar stance with regard to Pyongyang’s last nuclear test, as well as the test of a long-range ballistic missile.  Although Chinese officials take pains not to single out North Korea, they have repeatedly stated their determination to prevent any party from causing “disruptions” on the Korean Peninsula.  That is a rather unsubtle message to Pyongyang to cease its periodic provocations, especially nuclear and missile tests and clashes with South Korea’s military. 

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter

Unfortunately, Beijing’s latest expression of opposition is not likely to fare better than previous efforts.  Both Kim and his father, Kim Jong-il, defied China’s wishes and conducted nuclear and missile tests.  North Korea also attacked the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelled a South Korean island.  Beijing was clearly unhappy about such incidents, but seemed unable to prevent Pyongyang’s dangerous, destabilizing conduct. 

Yet U.S. leaders and pundits habitually refuse to believe that China cannot leash its troublesome client.  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once famously asserted that Beijing could end North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs with a phone call.  Although other critics generally do not go that far, they argue that Chinese officials have either failed or refused to use their country’s considerable leverage to curb Pyongyang’s aggressive behavior.  Some conservative analysts even charge or imply that Beijing actually welcomes North Korean actions that cause headaches for the United States and its East Asian allies. 

Those allegations oversimplify a complex situation.  Because China provides North Korea with a majority of its food and energy supplies, Pyongyang would seem to be highly vulnerable to pressure from Beijing.  But a decision by China to employ maximum economic power to impose its will on the North Korean regime would also require a willingness to incur grave risks.  Bringing such pressure to bear could cause the North Korean state to unravel.  Not only would that development produce a massive refugee crisis (and possibly a civil war) on China’s border, but North Korea’s demise would eliminate a crucial geographic buffer between the Chinese homeland and the U.S. sphere of influence throughout the rest of Northeast Asia.  Few Chinese leaders want to risk that outcome. 

More modest applications of pressure are unlikely to compel Pyongyang to adopt conciliatory policies.  North Korea clearly regards its nuclear and missile programs as high-priority objectives.  And Kim seems even less susceptible than his father and grandfather to Chinese influence.  Indeed, the purge and subsequent execution of his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, sent a message to North Korea’s party and military elites that Kim intended to rule without challenge from any source, foreign or domestic.  Moreover, it probably was not coincidental that Jang had shown signs of wanting his country to emulate China’s economic reforms.  Kim’s execution of his uncle may have been intended to send a message to Beijing as well as any “Chinese influenced” portions of North Korea’s own political elite. 

Given that track record, the latest Chinese government admonitions to Pyongyang about not conducting additional nuclear tests have little probability of success.  And if China is unable to prevent North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs from going forward, Washington needs to reassess its entire policy toward Pyongyang.  The worst possible outcome is the existence of a volatile, nuclear-armed country with which the United States has no productive relationship.  That is a blueprint for miscalculation and tragedy. 

For too long, American leaders have based policy on the lazy assumption that China will eventually rein-in its obnoxious client.  According to that scenario, Washington and its Northeast Asian allies need only stick to their demand that North Korea give up its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a promise that the system of economic sanctions imposed over the years will be lifted, or at least relaxed.  That policy assumes that Beijing will successfully prod a reluctant Pyongyang into accepting such a deal. 

But U.S. officials need to consider the possibility that China is unable, except at an unacceptable level of cost and risk to Chinese security interests, to compel North Korea to alter its current policy.   Certainly, the evidence continues to mount that Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang is not as great as we, or the Chinese, might wish.  That development has important policy implications that can no longer be ignored. 

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 550 articles and policy studies on international affairs. 

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