Photo by: Reuters/Lintao Zhang

Photo by: Reuters/Lintao Zhang

US–China cooperation on North Korea remains critical

27 July 2017

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Acting Director, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs

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China is under pressure to deliver a solution to the increasingly dangerous North Korean crisis.

Following North Korea’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), US President Donald Trump has called upon Beijing to put a ‘heavy move’ on Pyongyang to bring an end to the ‘nonsense’. He has tweeted previously that the United States and its allies will deal ‘properly’ with Pyongyang if China doesn’t.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is in lockstep with Washington, asserting at last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that ‘China has the capacity and responsibility to bring North Korea to its senses’.

China claims its influence over North Korea is constrained. There is some truth to that. Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are a shadow of what they once were. During the Cold War years, the connection between these two Communist allies was likened to that between ‘lips and teeth’.

Yet ties between the so-called middle and hermit kingdoms have drifted over the past quarter century, deteriorating sharply under the reign of the current North Korean leader, the young and reckless dictator Kim Jong-un.

Unlike his father Kim Jong-il, who was hosted by Beijing on at least seven occasions from 2000–11, the younger Kim has yet to visit China since taking power five years ago.

Highlighting the drift between Beijing and Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in December 2013. In so doing, he severed Beijing’s closest link to his regime.

More recently, Kim’s fingerprints were all over the audacious murder of Kim Jong-nam, who succumbed in February 2017 to a lethal dose of VX nerve agent administered at Kuala Lumpur airport. Kim’s half brother was on route to the Chinese territory of Macau, where he had lived for years under Beijing’s protection.

Much has been made in recent months of China’s willingness to freeze coal imports from North Korea. Yet China’s overall trade with the North continues to burgeon, growing by 37.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2017 alone.

What explains Beijing’s unwillingness to exert greater economic pressure against Pyongyang? At least three factors are at play.

First, the historical bonds between Beijing and Pyongyang run deep. While the pull of their shared history is more tenuous today, China suffered over a million casualties in the Korean War of 1950–53. The sentiments generated by such human sacrifice are not easily erased.

Second, Beijing is reluctant to tighten the economic noose around Pyongyang’s neck for fear of creating domestic disruption in North Korea. At approximately 1000 kilometres in length, China’s shared border with the North constitutes a crisis management nightmare. Back in April, Beijing deployed an additional 150,000 troops along it, ostensibly to conduct military drills but most likely in readiness for the flow of refugees that might materialise in the event of a full-scale or even limited Korean peninsula contingency.

Third, North Korea serves as a strategic buffer between China and the US’s key Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. Should North Korea collapse, Beijing’s nightmare scenario is unification of the two Koreas and, with it, the presence of US forces on its doorstep.

Chinese insecurities thus explain Beijing’s unwillingness to press Pyongyang harder.

To read the entire article by Brendan Taylor, visit the East Asia Forum website.

Updated:  22 March 2016/Responsible Officer:  Su-Ann Tan/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team