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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. 

Written By

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. 

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Commentar

    January 16, 2022 at 10:45 am

    Heh, heh, Mr Kelly, many MANY people think that china-pyongyang ties mirror that of US-Seoul ties. THEY DON’T !

    S Korea is a minion of Washington, but Pyongyang is certainly nobody’s lackey.

    N Korea, even in the best of times, won’t accept being told what to do, not even by some knucklehead in Beijing bent on placating the west.

    Pyongyang is totally different from Seoul and will never conduct itself as some subservient semi-independent vassal of a giant state.

    YET MANY FOREIGNERS INCLUDING THE SUPER GENIUSES AT THE STATE DEPT AND DEFENSE DEPT AND WHITE HOUSE DON’T GET EVEN SLIGHTEST WHIFF OF PYONGYANG’S DRIFT.

  2. Jimmy John Doe

    January 16, 2022 at 11:02 am

    china continues to provide ( to some extent) low cost basic economic aid to north korea purely on humanitarian grounds and not because of what rocket man is willing to do or unwilling to do.

    unlike us and the west, china does not employ basic economic aid as political weapon ( it doesn’t weaponize food or fuel or medicines). Few people today remember or recall the millions of innocent people who died or who were forced to leave Iraq due to us sanctions, including 1.5 million children ( some 500,000 babies) who were unable to survive.

  3. Joe Comment

    January 16, 2022 at 8:39 pm

    Commentar: A strawman (who ever claimed N. Korea was a minion of China?), an unsupported assertion (who ever believed S. Korea was a minion of the US?), leading to a vague conclusion (all those professional N. Korea watchers don’t get Pyongyang’s drift), and written in all caps in case we miss it. Brilliant job making us see your main point that “Commentar wants us to look down upon the US.”

  4. Joe Comment

    January 16, 2022 at 9:39 pm

    Jimmy John Doe: Should Taiwan have sent Mainland China food aid during 1959-1961 when tens of millions starved due to the bad agricultural policies?

  5. Joe Comment

    January 17, 2022 at 12:55 am

    The author assumes China does not like its allies to have nuclear arsenals. History shows the opposite – see Pakistan. The author assumes China is bothered about the ill reputations of its allies. History shows the opposite – see Kampuchea, for starters. So Buttridge’s Law of Headlines applies and the answer is no.

  6. Bankotsu

    January 17, 2022 at 1:25 am

    How about U.S. cut South Korea, Japan and Australia loose?

    South Korea, Japan and Australia are all quasi client states of U.S., but North Korea is NOT a China puppet, vassal or client state. North Korea is completely independent state.

    North Korea knows that it can never depend on China for defense or regime survival, hence they built nuclear weapons.

    The premise of the article is wrong.

    The country South Korea, where the author resides in is a U.S. client state.

    North Korea is not a chinese client state.

    This article makes no sense at all given that the starting premise is totally and utterly wrong.

    The writer confused North Korea with South Korea.

  7. bobby joe

    January 17, 2022 at 9:07 am

    North Korea is an absolute hereditary monarchy. That makes it vey rare outside the Middle East except for Brunei. That alone makes it doubtful it will last pass their current ruler no matter what China does.

  8. chicomarxist1949

    January 17, 2022 at 9:38 am

    North Korea is clearly a Chinese puppet state. North Korea is way too poor and backward to have developed the multiple long-range missile systems and the nuclear weapons program we have seen over the last few decades. These are clearly Chinese weapon programs and any nuclear weapons in North Korea are probably under Chinese control.

    North Korea’s major utility to China is probably that it will be the Chinese patsy that will have Chinese controlled nukes launched from its territory against US forces in the Western Pacific in order to benefit a Chinese move on Taiwan. In this scenario the US will only be able to retaliate against North Korea – a state of 25 million people – leaving China unscathed.

  9. Bankotsu

    January 17, 2022 at 10:03 am

    “North Korea is clearly a Chinese puppet state.”

    Then how come China cannot get North Korea to open up and reform their economy? They have been telling them to do this since 80s.

    Chinese puppet state? Kim Jong Un executed his uncle who was pro China. And his brother who lived in chinese Macau was also killed.

    All the people linked to China – everyone was killed.

  10. Joe Comment

    January 17, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    There’s a great debate here over “how much is North Korea a Chinese dependency and how much is South Korea a US dependency.” To resolve those questions, first we need to define what we are talking about. If we mean economic dependency, then surely North Korea is much more dependent than South Korea on an outside support. Need we discuss the facts and figures? If we mean political independence, for example South Korea has a number of disputes with major US ally Japan. Does North Korea similarly have any tensions with China’s major ally Pakistan? Those who claim “the North is more independent than the South” need to explain what they mean and give supporting evidence.

  11. Joe Comment

    January 17, 2022 at 12:48 pm

    Bankotsu: “China has been telling North Korea to open up and reform its economy since the 1980s.” Is this true? Can you cite any quote by a Chinese official to back up this claim? “Kim Jong Un executed some pro-Chinese officials.” But he executed many people. Since China has influence in North Korea, one would expect some were pro-Chinese. Can you provide any evidence that China was bothered by these purges and publicly opposed them?

  12. Ben d'Mydogtags

    January 17, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    Simple logic: will PRC be better off or worse off if it ditched NK? For a fairly minor cost in money, risk and embarrassment the PRC gains a buffer-zone between ROK/US forces, keeps the Western world off-balance and can enjoy propaganda wins from the spectacle of NK sticking its finger in everyone else’s eyes. Keeping a Kim warlord dynasty on life support is cheap and provides tangible benefits to PRC.

  13. Ben d'Mydogtags

    January 17, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    North Korea is too poor and backward to have developed nukes and missiles? Well the USSR was poor and backward when it developed nukes and missiles. The PRC was poor and backward when it developed nukes and missiles. Pakistan…same deal. Poverty and relative backwardness is not an impediment to an all-out regime effort, particularly if there are secrets to buy or steal (eg. AQ Khan).

  14. Al HORVATH

    January 17, 2022 at 3:19 pm

    China is not going to cut North Korea lose. As long as China is the supplier of 90% of everything North Korea needs they have some control over them. If they were to cut off North Korea things could get out of control inside North Korea and with North Korean US relations very quickly increasing the possibility of a flood of North Korean refugees fleeing to China. North Korea also serve China as the canary in the mine vis a vis how far they can push the US.

  15. Solano Jones

    January 17, 2022 at 8:24 pm

    “Chinese elites should re-consider the utility of propping up a cultish, opaque, Orwellian tyranny”

    You mean like the ones the Chines elites themselves operate?

  16. Bankotsu

    January 18, 2022 at 7:20 am

    “Those who claim “the North is more independent than the South” need to explain what they mean and give supporting evidence.”

    Wow. Surprised that basic stuff like South Korea is a U.S. client state and North Korea is independent state is disputed.

    Kind of like debating whether the Sun is going to rise tomorrow.

    In wartime, the South Korean army is commanded by U.S. military.

    There is nothing of that on the North Korean side.

    If during wartime, U.S. military is under the command of Putin, then what is U.S.?

    Need we say more?

  17. Joe Comment

    January 18, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    Bankotsu: For example, US troops served under Chinese command in the China theater in WWII. Was the US then a client state of China? I don’t think this particular criterion proves much.

  18. Joe Comment

    January 18, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    Out of curiosity, Bankotsu means 蛮骨 or is it 万骨? Interesting names for one who tries to argue that North Korea is not as dependent on China as most people believe.

  19. Joe Comment

    January 18, 2022 at 8:15 pm

    What would happen if North Korea established diplomatic relations with Taiwan? That would surely be worth a great deal of money, but then we might really find out what would happen if Mainland China cut off North Korea. Try it, Kim Jung-Un!

  20. Lupus

    January 22, 2022 at 11:05 am

    Above all, China wants stability. A nuclear state failing, falling into chaos, is their worst nightmare.
    No cutting loose ever, if this means danger for stability. And I see no such circumstances, as NK is economically depending on China to quite a degree, growingly.

    Also, as said by others, it‘s a buffer state. Nice to have one, isn‘t it? China even drove the US back in the Korea War with like half a million soldiers the CIA didn‘t see coming. Even if present day China is much more powerful, US troops at their border is still another nightmare. Try putting some on Taiwan and see what will happen…

    Sure, China is against NK having nuclear weapons. It endangers the status quo, could provoke the US, makes NK less dependent on China. But China would rather invade NK than seeing the US troops from their window.

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