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Could China Cut North Korea Loose?

North Korea
North Korean missile test. Image Credit: KCNA.

In the debate on North Korea, China inevitably plays a large role. It is a treaty ally of Pyongyang, and more than 90% of North Korean trade goes through that ally’s territory. The North shares a long border with China, and Beijing understandably worries about the basic disposition of the Korean peninsula. If North Korea implodes or war breaks out again, China will obviously be affected. At a minimum, a large wave of North Korean refugees would flood across the border in event of a major crisis. At worst, China and the United States could find themselves in stand-offs around North Korea in a post-collapse scramble for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

But Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang is mixed. North Korea engages in much illicit activity; it often parks its dollars for these criminal transactions, including the funding for its weapons programs, in Chinese banks. As sanctions on North Korea have ramped up, this has brought a lot of unwanted American attention to the Chinese banking sector.

North Korea also routinely provokes South Korea and the United States, such as this month’s missile tests. This regularly puts China in the unenviable position of defending the rogue state against the international community’s understandable desire to keep WMD out of the hands of a cultish, Orwellian tyranny. Hence China, despite its alliance with North Korea, has supported the expanding sanctions regime on North Korea. The UN Security Council has voted for nine sanctions resolutions between 2006 and 2017. China has supported every one.

Why Has China Supported North Korea in the Past

Since the Korean War, China has helped North Korea. When that war turned against the North in the fall of 1950, the Chinese army intervened to save the regime. With American forces permanently entrenched on the peninsula, and in post-war Japan, communist China struck a formal treaty with North Korea, which the two partners described ‘as close as lips to teeth.’

That relationship ebbed and flowed with the Cold War events, particularly the Sino-Soviet split. But after the implosion of the Soviet Union, China eventually stepped into the role of full-time patron of the North. For a brief moment in the 1990s, North Korea stood alone, between patrons. The USSR and its support were gone, and the Chinese had not fully stepped up to bail out the country’s disastrous economic dysfunction. North Korea nearly collapsed at this time and suffered a famine that killed around 10% of its population. The lesson to Beijing was that without external support, North Korea would likely implode, and Beijing has provided Pyongyang with varying levels of assistance ever since.

The logic for this, the Chinese freely admit, is that North Korea is a ‘buffer’ between them and the US, South Korea, and Japan. North Korea is heavily militarized and deeply anti-American. Its existence keeps the Americans far from the Chinese border and deeply distracted.

Why China Could Cut North Korea Loose Today

The argument for the buffer though is aging, and Chinese elites should re-consider the utility of propping up a cultish, opaque, Orwellian tyranny armed with a spiraling, unchecked nuclear missile program. Those missiles are also pointed at Beijing to keep it out of North Korea’s internal affairs, or those missiles (or at least parts of them) might be proliferated to unsavory groups or countries.

The logic of the buffer is territorial and military. Between the US in South Korea and Japan is 47,000 square miles of territory occupied by an anti-American military of 1.2 million soldiers and millions more in reserve. But the North Korean conventional military, while large, is increasingly obsolete; this is one of the major reasons the North has nuclearized. And a North Korea with nuclear weapons is an outcome China opposes.

In other words, the Northern buffer is no longer about bulky, slow-moving conventional warfare obstacles to the US and allied militaries. Instead, the buffer is now armed with dangerous nuclear and rocket capabilities which are easier to deploy, inflict far greater damage, are easy to sell overseas bidders, and entail significant risks of command, control, safety, and so on. At some point having a state like that on China’s border becomes more trouble than it is worth.

Next, China is militarily far more secure now than it was during the Cold War, reducing the military benefits of the buffer. China is wealthy now; its economy will likely be larger than America’s by the end of the decade. It fields a large modern military, including an enormous army. The US is unlikely to ever invade China, and if North Korea collapsed, the rationale for US forces on the Korean peninsula disappears.

Finally, cutting the North loose would dramatically bolster China’s claim to global leadership and trustworthiness. The world respects China for its rapid modernization, but few states trust it. China has no committed allies. Its pressure on Hong Kong and Taiwan will continue to push East Asian countries toward alignment with the US. Dropping North Korea would counteract this slide.

Unlikely but Worth Considering

As the US-China cold war worsens, the above scenario seems unlikely. China has traditionally opposed Korean unification to keep the Americans away and block a nationalistic unified Korean state on its border. This is still persuasive to the cold war mindset of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government. But the case for indefinitely bailing out North Korean bad behavior is weakening.

China’s support for North Korea alienates much of the world. It undercuts any claim to Chinese principled or benevolent leadership. It tars Beijing with partial responsibility for every outlandish act the Kim family of Pyongyang engages in. It provides ongoing justification for a large US presence in northeast Asia. It empowers a nuclear-armed regime that does not listen to Beijing and routinely violates the most basic norms of global governance. It spreads corruption and rot in the Chinese banking system, and among party and military elites with connections to North Korea. And the conventional deterrent value purchased for all this headache is decreasing as the US and allied technology outstrips anything the North can field. The equation is changing.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kellywebsite) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.