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ISOM: China’s role in North Korea

Published on November 24, 2017 10:30AM


Will Chinese pressure bring North Korea to the negotiating table and help stop its ambitious missile and nuclear program, maybe even letting the ruthless and sassy Kim Jong Un fall by the wayside? The U.S. is confident that newly powerful Chinese President XI Jinping could stop North Korea’s destabilizing program, as President Donald Trump has urged him to do. Xi has, in fact, just sent a special envoy to Pyongyang but the results have yet to surface. Below we look at the background.

Vassal : Since China has for centuries viewed the Korean Peninsula as a vassal state, it is not likely to have deliberately encouraged North Korea to go nuclear. Communist North Korea reportedly pursued nuclear weapon development independently, starting in the 1980s with help particularly from Pakistan. China and Russia both turned a blind eye to this development, however, and their companies have certainly provided components in that nuclear buildup. They may even have secretly enjoyed having North Korea as a surrogate menace to the United States, South Korea and Japan as long as it didn’t get out of hand.

Escalation: But now North Korea has gotten out of hand under Kim Jong Un. Since he became leader six years ago he has tested 84 missiles, and on July 4 of this year he launched an intercontinental missile powerful enough to reach the U.S. In September he conducted an underground test of a yet more powerful nuclear weapon. The rhetoric between North Korea and the United States has consequently gotten hot enough to provoke fear in the region of a dangerous miscalculation and a horrific war.

Soviets/Chinese: Initially, the Soviet Union was Communist North Korea’s primary economic supporter until the Soviet collapse in 1989, throwing North Korea into severe economic crisis, including famine. China then became North Korea’s economic lifeline, a factor judged to give China great leverage today.

Chinese Relations: Unlike his ruling grandfather and father, Kim Jong Un has never been to Beijing. Unusually, Xi has visited South Korea but not North Korea. He seems to view Kim with disdain. When the young Kim came to power six years ago at age 27, China probably expected that Kim’s uncle, who worked well with China, would be the real leader. But, acting like a medieval monarch, Kim quickly had his uncle and other possible rivals killed. Then in early 2017, Kim staged the spectacular killing of his older half-brother with a VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. China, a protector of the exiled half-brother, had to be surprised and shocked. Kim has further infuriated China with taunts and with missile and bomb tests brazenly launched during summit meetings in Beijing (but not the recent party congress).

Sanctions: These events may be what prompted China to change its previously very lax enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea. This year, it not only voted for tougher UN sanctions, including on key trade items such as coal, but to be better in implementing them. It has given hope to U.S. officials that China might take the really drastic step of bringing North Korea to its knees by cutting off the oil pipeline that keeps North Korea’s military and industry functioning. But will it?

Chinese Interests: If you examine what China says repeatedly, it’s entirely up to the U.S. and North Korea, not China, to settle their differences on the Korean Peninsula. China and Russia are pushing the “freeze for freeze plan” whereby North Korea would freeze its nuclear/ missiles program and the U.S. would freeze its joint military exercises with South Korea. But promoting regime change in cooperation with the U.S. is something else. Anathema to China is having a united Korea with U.S. troops and U.S. influence up to its border. Plus, Xi wants a Communist party ruling in Pyongyang, not a democracy.

Pyongyang: Kim Jong Un is busy developing a nuclear tip missile and a nuclear submarine and has shunned peace talks. While some analysts see a hopeful sign that he has not conducted any tests since Sept. 15, others attribute this to the normal fall/ winter cycle when the military help with harvest and have training. The outcome of the Chinese envoy’s visit will be of interest in revealing any change in Kim’s position.

Comment: The U.S. and western countries have long put the onus on China to stop the North Korean nuclear buildup. It hasn’t worked. But even with new Chinese cooperation on sanctions and re-starting talks, there is a significant disconnect between our future interests and those of the Chinese on the Korean Peninsula — and in Asia. Rather than leaving it to the Chinese, we are better advised to have our own strong agenda for handling North Korea. It should involve sanctions, augmented defense measures, alliances, deterrence, containment and always pursuit of negotiations — but not disastrous war.

Harriet Isom



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