“As close as lips and teeth” was one of Mao Zedong’s favoured descriptions for China’s friendship with North Korea. Indeed, Beijing has backed the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang as an ally and trading partner for almost 70 years.
Some of that friendliness has been cosmetic – Mao chastised a visiting delegation in 1956 that their country’s founder Kim Il-sung was a “foolish ruler” and worse than a feudal lord – but it’s getting harder to maintain a friendly face. That became even more evident last week with the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur. Kim’s grandson, the menacingly unpredictable current leader Kim Jong-un, is widely suspected of ordering his half-brother’s death.
The Chinese haven’t commented officially on the killing of Kim apart from saying that they are monitoring the situation. But the view in the international media is that they will be furious about the murder of a man who lived most of his life in Macau under Beijing’s implicit protection.
The older brother wasn’t thought to have had much of a power base in Pyongyang, although there is speculation that – like Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle by marriage, who was executed in 2013 – he was keen on the idea of North Korea’s economy undergoing China-style reforms. Jang, once the country’s second-most powerful man, was also said to have had strong links with the Chinese.
Probably the more pressing concern for Chinese diplomats this month was another of North Korea’s missile tests, the first since the start of Donald Trump’s presidency. Within a few days there were reports that deliveries of North Korean coal were being denied at Chinese ports, and there was confirmation from the Ministry of Commerce this week that China is banning coal imports from its renegade neighbour until the end of this year.
Critics of Beijing’s relations with North Korea have urged caution on the news, claiming that China hasn’t been serious about implementing sanctions in the past. The Chinese deny foot-dragging and even issued a new list of prohibited exports to North Korea in January, banning items such as chemicals and weapons technologies. Last April Beijing announced that it would be banning coal imports as well, with the proviso that they would take deliveries intended for “the people’s well-being”. Now the ban seems to be hardening, with the Chinese saying that there will be no purchases whatsoever from a country that was its fourth biggest supplier last year, when imports actually increased on 2015.
In fact, the Chinese are customers for more than 90% of North Korea’s trade, and coal accounted for more than half of Pyongyang’s exports to China last year, according to Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. That makes the ban potentially punitive, despite the regular complaint from Washington that the Chinese could do much more to influence Pyongyang. The new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeated the rebuke at his confirmation hearings, insisting that the Chinese “really do have complete control over what sustains the government of North Korea”.
So is this a sign that Beijing is prepared to sever a financial lifeline for Kim’s regime? Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, doubts it, suggesting that Chinese fuel and commodity exports to North Korea are more important in sustaining Kim Jong-un. “The Chinese have no interest in really applying the type of pressure that some are expecting,” he told Bloomberg on Tuesday. “When you are talking about a lifeline – what is the sustenance that keeps the regime going – it’s the aid and livelihood assistance. It’s the support from China, rather than the money that North Korea gets from selling coal.”
Nonetheless, both Kim Jong-un and his father before him have refused to heed Beijing’s advice, ignoring its opposition to their nuclear programme and rejecting its urgings to undertake market-oriented reforms.
Yet the Chinese have deep reservations about the efforts to isolate the North Koreans, fearing that confronting the regime could push it to the point of collapse, and make Kim more reckless.
“China just keeps on telling you this is not working, although we’re going along with you,” warned Fu Ying, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in China’s legislature and a former vice-foreign minister, at a security conference in Germany last week. “You have to realise – without talking with them, you will only drive them further in the wrong direction.”
The Chinese would suffer terrible collateral damage in a full-blown military confrontation because North Korea’s nuclear bases are near its borders, says Ding Gang from the People’s Daily. “Once the situation in the Korean peninsula spirals out of control, the facilities will be the primary targets or the final fortress of North Korea’s defence,” he predicted in the Global Times this week. “Either way, the effects on China will be severe.”
The collapse of the North Korean regime could also unleash a massive refugee crisis and potentially lead to a unified Korea allied with the US on China’s borders. Faced with such unpalatable outcomes, the strategists in Beijing have preferred that Kim’s power in Pyongyang be prolonged, however distasteful the experience.
Yet there is the chance that the calculations are changing as Kim moves closer to mounting nuclear warheads on missiles that could reach South Korea, Japan and the US itself. The threat is pushing his enemies to reconsider their response, which is having a direct impact on realpolitik in the region, including the row over the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system on South Korean soil (see WiC354 and Keeping Track below).
The sense of crisis would be even greater if Pyongyang’s belligerence pushed South Korea and Japan to reassess their own non-nuclear status. That’s the kind of escalation that no one wants, but the prospect could open a new window for negotiations in which the Chinese apply more meaningful pressure on Pyongyang, and the Americans reconsider their refusal to talk.
Any talks would require a rethink from both sides as North Korea is demanding recognition as a nuclear-weapon state and Washington has refused, insisting on denuclearisation as the starting point for any new negotiations.
China agrees with the Americans in principle, but its conundrum is that a forceful denial of Kim’s ambitions might lead to a collapse of his authority, triggering the kind of instability that terrifies the Chinese leadership. In this context, the Americans could do more to assuage Chinese concerns about the impact of pushing Kim harder, argues Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Reagan. “Is the Trump administration willing to help pay for the costs of a breakdown in the North? Perhaps help build a wall along the Chinese-North Korean border?” he asked in an article in Foreign Policy this month. “Or more realistically – assist in setting up refugee camps for North Koreans? Accept Chinese military intervention to stabilise a tottering North Korean state? Promise to withdraw US troops if the Koreas reunify? Accept a neutral unified Korea?”
These kinds of question are all the more terrifying at a time when the inexperienced Trump administration is hinting that it will kibosh some of Washington’s traditional commitments in the region. On the other hand, the Obama policy of isolating North Korea and waiting for its collapse hasn’t worked either. “There is a real possibility that the US will abandon its ‘strategic patience’ with North Korea now that Donald Trump is in office,” the People’s Daily predicts.
In the meantime the indication is that Beijing prefers to tread water in its dealings with Pyongyang, hoping for some kind of breakthrough, but unwilling to do anything that shatters the status quo. Although the coal ban could turn out to be a more dramatic departure from this stance, another editorial in the Global Times was more typical of Chinese caution. Expressing exasperation with Kim’s nuclear push, it warned him to think carefully whether his missile strategy is “beneficial or not”.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, has gone public with its own exasperation at Beijing’s coal ban. On Thursday the state-run news agency published an article about “a neighbouring country, which often claims to be a friendly neighbour” and accused this neighbour of “dancing to the tune of the US”. The Korean Central News Agency may not have named China but given North Korea’s total lack of diplomatic allies in the region who else could it mean?
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