One of the most famous maxims in business is: know your client. Extend that to geopolitics and the equivalent might be: know your client state. But in China’s case the behaviour of its ‘client’ North Korea is hard to fathom.
Take last September’s Second World War victory parade in Beijing. In attendance was Park Geun-hye, leader of South Korea, a key ally of the United States in Asia. But declining to show up was Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, for which China is a crucial ally.
Then on January 6 – with his trademark unpredictability – Kim surprised the world with another nuclear test, reportedly this time of a hydrogen bomb.
This was embarrassing for his neighbour (China shares a 1,300km border with North Korea) not only because Beijing’s leaders were as blindsided by the test as Washington seems to have been, but also because the North Koreans appeared to be thumbing their nose at their protector and benefactor, ignoring Chinese strictures against further nuclear tests.
The Xinhua News Agency immediately declared China’s displeasure, publishing a statement from the nation’s foreign ministry that it “firmly opposes” the latest test. “China is steadfast in its position that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearised and nuclear proliferation should be prevented to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia,” it insisted. “We strongly urge the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea] to honour its commitment to denuclearisation, and to cease any action that may deteriorate the situation.”
Reading between the lines, a former British ambassador to Pyongyang told Sky News that Kim’s latest act of defiance had led to a “total sense of humour failure” in Beijing.
WiC first wrote a Talking Point about China’s relations with North Korea in issue 10. Back then it was Kim’s father who was rattling the nuclear sabre and in the years that have followed Beijing has become increasingly disillusioned with the Kim dynasty. But Beijing faces a quandary over how best to handle Pyongyang, knowing it faces a disturbing series of bad outcomes should the relationship go seriously awry. Maintaining the status quo is probably China’s best option. Then again – as the latest nuclear test indicates – even that may be increasingly unsustainable.
The geopolitical consequences?
The worry with relying on the status quo is that, with each passing year, Kim’s nuclear weapons programme gets more advanced. On Friday a propaganda documentary about the North Korean leader even indicated that work on a submarine-launched ballistic missile “was more advanced than previously thought”, comments the New York Times.
The same newspaper also says Kim has used his latest missile test to “instigate US-China tensions”.
Indeed, in what it described as a “strong rebuke”, American Secretary of State John Kerry said last Thursday that China’s approach to North Korea was a “failure” and something had to change in Beijing’s handling of the isolated country.
Words were followed with action. In what the New York Times depicted as a “show of force”, the Pentagon flew a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber over South Korea on Sunday.
That said, the Americans have raised doubts as to whether the North Koreans really exploded an H-bomb. What’s patently clear is that Kim – plagiarising from his father’s playbook – was piqued that he’d been ignored for too long by Presidents Xi and Obama. Declaring that he’d just detonated an H-bomb, he got everyone’s attention. But after the initial headlines, US officials soon queried the claim, saying the seismic activity suggested the weapon had a similar yield to a previous test in 2013 and hence was likely not a hydrogen bomb.
Liang Yabin, an associate professor with China’s Central Party School, told the Global Times: “Whether North Korea really has nuclear technology is questionable, so announcing the success of test explosions is mainly for political purposes. North Korea hopes to attract the world’s attention, using nuclear weapons as a political card and a bargaining chip, thereby achieving internal cohesion, loyalty and recognition for Kim Jong-un’s regime.”
Liang added that another of the geopolitical consequences of the test will be to “stimulate the US alliance with both South Korea and Japan”. A strengthening of this tripartite grouping is something that China was seeking to avoid, illustrating how the rogue behaviour of its Korean ‘ally’ is proving detrimental to Beijing’s broader regional interests.
“North Korea’s nuclear tests offer a new excuse for the US to return to Asia,” agrees Lü Chao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Lü also told the Global Times that the US tactic of flying a B-52 over the Korean peninsula is “very dangerous”.
YaleGlobal points to another escalation that is worrying for Beijing. In this case the Americans have proposed that Seoul deploy its Terminal High Altitude Air Defence anti-missile system (Thaad), as a means to shield the South better against the growing ballistic threat from the North.
“Alarmed by the prospect of US Thaad deployment near its borders, Beijing is pressuring Seoul to reject the US bid,” writes YaleGlobal.
Also worrying for Chinese policymakers are signs of a thawing in the previously frosty relations between Seoul and Tokyo. As YaleGlobal also comments, the resolution of a dispute between Japan and South Korea surrounding Second World War ‘comfort women’ has allowed the Americans to firm up their dual alliances with Seoul and Tokyo.
The Washington Post makes a similar point, indicating that the US president played an important role in brokering the deal: “Repairing the Japan-South Korea relationship was essential to Obama for two reasons. A closer alliance between the two could help counterbalance China’s growing military and economic influence in the region, and help keep North Korean aggression in check.”
The latter point also hints at another major geopolitical concern for the Chinese: Kim’s aggressive stance – and his possible progress in developing submarine-launched missiles – gives Japan’s leader Abe Shinzo another pretext for rearming on grounds of national security.
A strained relationship?
According to the Chinese insiders who spoke to the New York Times, President Xi is “deeply distrustful” of Kim and one of the critical tests that his presidency faces is whether he can control “a young, volcanic leader” without undermining China’s interests.
Notably, the globetrotting Xi has not made a trip to Pyongyang (though Xi did visit another pariah regime, Zimbabwe, recently).
But is Kerry right to label Beijing’s handling of Pyongyang a failure? China has tried repeatedly to get North Korea to ape some of its own economic reforms of the 1980s, combining cheap land and labour with foreign investment to boost GDP and improve living standards.
This has been to no avail: in the trade-off between guns and butter, the Kim dynasty prefers the former, and preferably of the fissile variety.
While the regime has opened the occasional amusement park and new ski resort in recent years, much of the country’s scant resources are financing the “treasured sword” – Kim’s description for his nuclear arsenal. (Part of his logic: this can protect the regime against invasion, and force the Americans to negotiate, as they did with Iran.)
In recent months, Beijing has nevertheless tried to repair relations with its wayward ally. Among these attempts was an invite for Kim’s female pop group Moranbong to play a concert in Beijing last month. The gig was cancelled, however, when Chinese officials sought to soften the band’s repertoire (song lyrics included nuclear bomb threats and on stage a video backdrop was said to feature a mock missile attack on the US). The band’s leader insisted that nothing could be changed without Kim’s direct approval and the ladies returned to Pyongyang. Three days later a peeved Kim signed a handwritten authorisation to go ahead with the (alleged) hydrogen bomb test.
The concert episode and the test that ensued reveal how fragile the relationship is. A former South Korean ambassador to China confirmed as much when he told a TV station in Seoul: “Beijing-Pyongyang relations are far worse than I had thought. China is quite at a loss how to respond.”
China’s state media has taken on an angrier tone in the wake of last week’s provocation. In one editorial China Daily described the act as “risky, irresponsible and reckless” and said that North Korea must “keep to its promise” on denuclearisation.
“There should be no tolerance and compromise on this issue,” it insisted.
The more interesting modification in stance was taken by the nationalistic Global Times. On December 11 it had written an editorial highlighting solidarity with the regime in Pyongyang: “History and geopolitics are driving North Korea and China together, instead of pulling them apart. It is impossible for a clean break to happen between the two, and this is becoming increasingly clear.”
But after the bomb detonation, the tabloid cautioned that Kim was heading down the wrong path.
“If Pyongyang is determined to develop its economy, it should engage with the outside world, including the West. Nuclear weapons are not the solution to its domestic woes,” the newspaper admonished.
Chinese academics have been taking a more strident line too. Liang Yabin at the Central Party School was quoted by media as saying that “China needs to adjust its policy to North Korea, we can no longer appease it.”
Zhang Liangui, another expert in North Korean studies, likewise told the Global Times that China should join other nations and “enforce sanctions more strictly”.
The mood among netizens is more diverse, but a common concern is that China is only 100km from where the tests were carried out, posing a threat to the health of those Chinese living close to the border.
Plenty of netizens now view Kim as an unreliable ally – and possibly as even a threat.
One of the most popular Chinese jokes to get forwarded online after last week’s tests involved a fictional conversation between Obama and his defence secretary, Ashton Carter. It begins with Carter asking if the president has heard the news about North Korea’s H-bomb and advising “We should take measures.” To this Obama replies: “Idiot! Don’t you know they only have enough fuel to launch their warheads at China.”
An unsolvable problem?
The Central Party School’s Liang has poured cold water on the prospect of a successful resumption of the Six-Party Talks – a series of negotiations between China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the US for the purpose of dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. He said that the premise of the talks is that North Korea will abandon further tests in exchange for overseas aid. However, as he also notes: “North Korea has already written possession of nuclear weapons into its constitution. The solution proposed by North Korea is universal nuclear disarmament, meaning all the nuclear powers abandon nuclear weapons. This is impossible, so it is almost impossible to restart the Six-Party Talks.”
China still has more leverage over the North Koreans than anyone else. As YaleGlobal observes: “Kim depends on China for food and energy. As it faces another year of bad crops caused by a devastating drought in 2015, the North’s dependence on Beijing for food aid has grown.”
Still, for China there look to be more bad outcomes than good. In a scenario in which it chokes off supplies in the hope of bringing Kim into line, it risks the regime collapsing. Beijing views this as the worst- case scenario. For one thing it could lead to millions of refugees crossing into China. For another, it would likely precipitate moves to unify the two Koreas. Beijing takes a dim view of that prospect – since it would mean an American ally sharing a land border with China (assuming Seoul becomes the dominant partner in the unified peninsula). The Chinese military prefers instead a ramshackle Kim regime acting as a land buffer with South Korea.
Up till now, the policy appears to have been one of muddling through. Of course, that has allowed Kim the time to advance his missile capability and isn’t a strategy that is likely to endear China to many of its neighbours, especially South Korea.
Indeed President Park this week said she’d been in talks with Beijing over the measures required to stop Kim doing a fifth test. The South Korean leader told Reuters: “I believe the Chinese government will not allow the situation on the Korean peninsular to deteriorate further.” Park wants “bone-numbing sanctions” imposed on North Korea.
However, as the South Korea-based author of the article on YaleGlobal concludes, “Beijing is expected to continue supporting Pyongyang as long as it doesn’t deviate significantly from the status quo. And China is signalling readiness to welcome Kim when he is ready to make his first official visit. This will likely occur shortly before May.” Should that prove correct, the next question is whom Kim will meet in China. Given his huff over the Chinese handling of the visit by pop group Moranbong, it would be a high-risk strategy if he wasn’t given some face time with Xi Jinping. Oh to be a fly on the wall in that meeting…
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