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North Korea’s Step Too Far?

Zhu Feng, Deputy Director of Center for International & Strategic Studies, Peking University
April 10, 2013
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After nearly a month of belligerent bluster from North Korea, China appears to have had enough, ending its silence about North Korea’s brinkmanship and suddenly roaring its disapproval of its ally’s reckless threats. China’s exceptional tough talk does not necessarily mean that it intends to abandon Kim Jong-un’s regime; but, at the very least, it does suggest that a radical shift in China’s policy toward North Korea might no longer be unthinkable.

Zhu Feng

Zhu Feng

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi exchanged phone calls with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on April 6, he expressed China’s rejection of rhetoric and action aimed at destabilizing the Northeast Asian region. Moreover, Wang made clear that China would not allow “troublemaking on China’s doorstep.”

The next day, Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking to an assembly of primarily Asian political and business leaders at the annual government-sponsored Boao Forum for Asia, declared that no country “should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.” Xi did not mention any country by name, but his implicit condemnation of North Korea was clear to all.

Before these official rebukes, there had been much speculation about whether China would risk a fundamental change in its relations with North Korea, the socialist “little brother” that it continues to subsidize heavily. Following the rare display of open indignation by Xi and Wang, such speculation has now become stronger than ever.

Some ask what “value” Kim’s hermit kingdom provides that prevents China from acting decisively; others wonder to what extent Chinese leaders’ domestic concerns continue to inhibit their willingness to switch course on North Korea.

In fact, China’s leaders have agonized over North Korea’s recent provocations. They have been struggling to persuade the Kim regime to temper its volatility and accept a “grand bargain”: official recognition and normalization of relations with all of its neighbors, and with the United States, in exchange for denuclearization. Indeed, this has led to considerable squabbling between the two countries in recent years.

China understands that North Korea’s intractability is rooted in its deep isolation from the world, mass deception of its people, and Kim’s fear of losing control of a country that only his family has ruled. So the country’s rulers have come to believe that they can gain attention and resources only through provocation.

For China, the Kim regime’s survival can be assured only if it follows China’s lead in reforming and opening up. But, faced with South Korea’s shining democracy and booming economy, the Chinese model is irrelevant to the North: following it would mean acknowledging the South’s supremacy on the Korean Peninsula, and thus an instant loss of legitimacy.

During the past two decades, North Korea’s leaders have experimented lightly with minimal “reform,” only to retreat from it quickly. China patiently bore this pattern of intermittent brinkmanship and timid reform, largely owing to its belief that the risks posed by the Kim dynasty could be controlled as long as China did not cut off the regime’s lifeline of oil, food, and other necessities. More important, China’s leaders believed that by shielding the North from US pressure, it was acting in the interest of its own national security.

But here China’s analysis has been completely wrong, for it underestimates the Kim regime’s unmanageable desperation whenever it believes that its survival in doubt. Moreover, North Korea does not want to be beholden to any power, including China. So it exploits China’s goodwill and national-security concerns, and even regards Chinese patronage as its due.

A further complication concerns North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. The North appears to be convinced that, with nuclear weapons, it can maintain complete diplomatic independence, and that China, fearing nuclear blackmail, will never abandon it.

Now, however, it is North Korea’s turn to make a mistake. Kim Jong-un’s childish tantrums have genuinely enraged China. Yes, the country’s leaders have sometimes complained about the heavy burden of subsidizing North Korea; but, until now, they had never shown such open disgust with the North’s performance.

China’s warning that it will not allow North Korean “troublemaking on China’s doorstep” can be considered the equivalent of a “yellow card” in soccer. China has not decided to abandon North Korea. But the warning is a stern one for Kim Jong-un: China may send him to the sidelines if he does not change his behavior.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to visit Beijing in the coming days. It is now time for American and Chinese leaders to negotiate a real and viable exit from the current crisis, while productively exploring ways to restart the denuclearization process on the Korean peninsula. If Kim’s bombast and nuclear threats lead to China-US bonding over a joint North Korea settlement, the entire world will be the safer for it.

Zhu Feng is Deputy Director of the Center for International Studies and Professor of International Relations at Peking University.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2013

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