Talking Point

“I’m back!”

Rocket launch reignites debate over China’s relations with North Korea

Flaming liability: Kim Jong-il regains the world's attention with the Taepodong-2 rocket

China recognised Korea as a tributary state as far back as 1392, and the two countries’ relationship through history has been characterised by some as that of elder brother to younger sibling.

Old habits die hard. So some are asking why, in diplomatic terms, Beijing is not doing more to keep little brother, North Korea in line.

Didn’t little brother just launch a rather provocative missile?

Kim Jong-il’s propagandists regard him as “a genius of 10,000 talents”. This, after all, is a man who made 11 holes-in-one during his first ever round of golf (according to the state news agency). So Kim will not have been surprised at the success of the Taepodong-2’s launch last Sunday.

Overseas experts are questioning the North Korean claim to have sent a communications satellite into orbit – claiming Kim was testing whether the Taepodong-2 ‘missile’ could reach Hawaii. But Kim’s underlying objectives – to get back into the global limelight and to sow dissension amongst participants in the Six Party Talks – seem to have been achieved well enough.

What was China’s reaction to the latest test?

Not vigorous enough, according to some insiders in Washington and Seoul. China’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Zheng Yesui, requested a “cautious and proportionate” response and downplayed calls for further international action.

Zheng also queried whether the action was genuinely in contravention of the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1718, which banned Pyongyang from further ballistic missile launches in 2006. A communications satellite (even one that Kim’s engineers claim to be belting out patriotic songs 200 miles above our heads) does not qualify as a breach, China says.

So there is a feeling that China could do more?

Many policy experts think so.

The Council of Foreign Relations in Washington estimates that Beijing has provided as much as 90% of North Korea’s energy imports since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And according to the Center for Strategic Studies, up to 40% of China’s total foreign aid budget is also directed towards the Kim regime, primarily in heavy oil and food aid.

Then there is the psychological support of being one of very few countries that Pyongyang might regard as a friend. In 1950 China sent thousands of troops to fight on the Korean peninsula. In 1967 it also signed a Friendship Treaty with Pyongyang promising assistance if the country was attacked again; a commitment which remains in place today, albeit rather ambiguously.

North Korea reciprocates by trying to tug on the ideological heartstrings. So it refers to the years of food shortages suffered by its own people as the “arduous march”, no doubt hoping to evoke feelings of Chinese nostalgia for Mao’s own Long March 75 years ago.

But attempts like this to rekindle a dwindling sense of comradeship seem forlorn ones. The reality is that China and North Korea grow less alike with every passing month.

But the Chinese still have the most leverage over North Korea?

A tougher line (like trade sanctions) without Chinese involvement make little sense. So critics urge China to do more.

Beijing also treads an awkward path between emphasising that others should follow its policy lead, whilst also pointing out that Kim is notoriously difficult to corral.

Events in 2006 did suggest that Chinese influence has its limits when, despite public warnings from the Chinese leadership, Pyongyang tested a nuclear device.

Beijing described the action as “brazen” (purple-faced apoplexy in Sino-diplomatic terms) and joined the US, South Korea and Japan in securing the Security Council Resolution that Kim flouted this week (if you agree that a ballistic missile was really launched). It was the first time that Beijing had opted for public punishment rather than persuasion in its handling of Kim.

But Kim was still able to make a diplomatic trip to China last month, visiting a model farm in Shandong among other things. According to the China Daily, 2009 has even been designated the ‘Year of Friendship’ between the two nations.

Washington meanwhile wants to toughen sanctions and blacklist more North Korean companies and individuals, as well as block further imports of luxury good items to the recalcitrant regime.

Why does Beijing prefer a quieter response?

China’s foreign policy philosophy is to avoid intervention in the sovereign affairs of others, which is why events in 2006 were heralded as such a major break with tradition by Western diplomats.

But Beijing wonders if its more forceful approach in 2006 actually achieved much. It also fears a complete breakdown in the Six Party Talks mechanism (the dialogue process started in 2003 in which China, South Korea, the US, Japan and Russia have been trying to get Kim to give up his nuclear weapons programme).

Then there are the worries that a more confrontational policy could trigger an implosion within Kim’s regime and widespread domestic unrest. This could lead to a flooding of millions of refugees across the 800-mile border into adjoining Chinese territory (and into three of China’s poorest “rust belt” provinces).

Another fear is that domestic instability might see Kim’s nuclear production facilities fall into even less predictable hands or (even worse) end up damaged and generate nuclear contamination.

At that point regional realpolitik could kick in, especially if the South Korean military felt it had to intervene. Kim might be a major irritation to the Chinese but he also acts as a potential shock-absorber between China and South Korea (and its US military presence). According to Time magazine: “China likes having a buffer state not allied with the US between itself and the South.”

As a one-party state itself, China favours predictability and order above most other factors. So even though it does have the widest range of non-military options to influence Kim Jong-il’s regime, it is unlikely to adopt any approach that it thinks could compromise its stability. At its most basic, this is international relations reduced to the ‘better the devil you know’ principle. Kim is very aware of its advantages.

So what would China like to see happen?

Firstly, a successful resumption of the Six Party talks – brokered primarily by Beijing – in which progress is made towards North Korea giving up on its nuclear ambitions.

And some cautious economic reform too. Academics think that China has tried to persuade Pyongyang that it could boost agricultural productivity significantly if it allowed its farmers to act independently of the communal work teams. After all, China did so itself in the 1970s and it served as a major step towards the country’s economic transformation. So far Kim has not shown much interest in following suit.

Not surprisingly, China’s patient approach has also centred on Kim himself. But at 67, the North Korean leader is showing signs of flagging, especially after a rumoured stroke last year.

The odds on men of Kim’s age surviving more than five years after a heart attack are only fifty-fifty, and Kim is also thought to suffer from diabetes. So China may not have quite as long as it hopes to convince North Korea’s maestro that he should be playing by their rules.


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