North Korea’s ability to burn up the time and diplomatic effort of international leaders despite being a country of a mere 23 million people with one of the lowest per capita wealth levels in the world continues to amaze. It is even more extraordinary that at a time of such global confusion, it is not Brexit, Syria’s civil war, Russian assertiveness or China’s games in the South China Sea that consistently make the newspaper headlines, but the antics and brinkmanship of a state led by a man in his early thirties who is the third generation of a Communist family cult.
North Korea proves at least one thing - even in the era of its ascent, China is daily blackmailed, humiliated, and outwitted by its tiny neighbour. At the heart of this is a series of very simple perceptions on the part of the North Koreans. Firstly, no matter how unpalatable and distasteful their regime is to the Chinese, it is still infinitely superior strategically for their huge neighbour than the idea of a unified peninsula most likely under American tutelage. For over a thousand years, Chinese imperial dynasties sought to assert influence over this geopolitical frontline region. They are not about to give up. And it was the one issue that the People’s Republic of China soon after its creation in 1949 was willing to fight side by side with an ally on, helping the North reassert control after their disastrous invasion of the South in 1950. To this day, North Korea is the only country China has a treaty alliance with.
Secondly, the North Koreans have read the Chinese right. Were Beijing ever to consider military intervention in their troublesome neighbour’s territory, then their non-interventionist stance in the affairs of other sovereign nations held as a fundamental pillar of their foreign policy since 1955 would be shattered. They will be exposed as no better than the hegemonic U.S. with its constant military interventions and campaigns in the rest of the world. Their moral superiority, so adroitly asserted over the last decades, will be torn away. The North Koreans will have shown that China is like any other superpower.
Thirdly, North Korea has illustrated with brutal clarity the power of having no plan B. As Andrei Lankov, in one of the most incisive descriptions of the DPRK made clear some years ago, for the 100 thousand strong elite that sit at the heart of the current Pyongyang regime, economic reform, political reform, openings up to the outside world are all impossible because they would almost certainly risk destabilising the whole system, and leading to its complete implosion. The Kim regime would be blown away in a matter of moments. The strategy has been a simple one therefore. To enclose the country, ensure its people are misinformed and brainwashed, blaming all their ills on the U.S., and relying on nuclear weapons while claiming that their great, wise leaders are saving them from oblivion. Almost three millennia after his death, the great Chinese philosopher Han Fei has worthy disciples in North Korea. They practice the most pure form of his bitterly cynical legalist philosophy – trust no one, ensnare everyone, hold on to power no matter what the cost. And so far, for the Kim regime it has worked.
This position of being utterly without an alternative means that the North Koreans are able to uniquely blackmail the Chinese in ways that others, with more choices and more leeway, could never do. They will say, and can actually carry through, their threats of launching primitive missiles at neighbours. They can, and will, drive their population to starvation in order to squeeze aid and assistance out of Chinese and others – something that actually happened in the 1990s during the terrible years of depravation. They can, and will, assassinate even the most marginal opponents, as they most likely did with the elder son of Kim Jong-il in Malaysia earlier this year. This is the diplomacy of the desperate. But it is remarkably effective. And Chinese more than others know adding more threats against the perpetually threatened simply doesn’t work.
The reason why the North Korea issue is so serious, and so fundamentally worrying, however, is less about the failing regime and more about the way that it sits, like fissile material, at the heart of a region full of tensions. The most serious of these threats is by far the Trump administration’s to threats to take action militarily against Pyongyang, that would be immediately interpreted as a strike directly at China. The world’s two greatest economies and military entities would be brought face to face with each other. Conflict would be between them, not with North Korea.
This is why North Korea is a far more serious problem in the end that the South China Seas, or resolving the status of Taiwan, or dealing with Japan-Chinese relations. There are protocols and restraints in all these areas, and some systematic modes of dialogue. For North Korea, isolated, desperate, with no plan B, there are no roads away to sunny highlands and a better future. They know that China privileges the status quo, and they consistently know where the limits of their provocation lie. They read their neighbours superbly, based on Confucian intuition and good, old fashioned blackmail. In the 21st century, the Chinese leaders daily deploy the language of their renaissance and new rise – and daily face a disloyal neighbour that delights in proving their impotence. The question now is as China comes closer and closer to achieving its dream, how long it will allow this situation to continue. There are few signs at the moment it is willing to call an end to the status quo any time soon.