Why China Props Up North Korea

In a New York Times op-ed last week, North Korea-watcher and Korea Times columnist Andrei Lankov explains quite starkly why China will continue to prop up North Korea.

International sanctions, introduced after the first nuclear test in 2006, have not had any noticeable effect — in part because they have not been seriously implemented. It is clear that no “stern warnings” from the United States or the United Nations Security Council will have any effect on Pyongyang’s behavior.

With all other approaches failing, one last hope is often cited — China. Today, some 45 percent of all North Korean trade is with China, and between 30 and 50 percent of China’s entire foreign aid budget is spent on this one small country. So, the reasoning goes, Beijing must have tremendous leverage over Pyongyang….

Nonetheless, there are compelling reasons why China is unlikely to press North Korea hard.

North Korea accepts Chinese aid, but it has shown no inclination to heel to Beijing’s advice. The North Korean regime is such that it is largely immune to foreign pressure. It has been tried before, but when the pressure is only moderate — such as a partial reduction of aid or less favorable trade conditions — North Korean leaders have simply ignored it.

That may lead to a further deterioration of living standards, but the well-being of the population has never been among Pyongyang’s major concerns. North Koreans have no influence on the state’s policies, and are unlikely to rebel. If deprived of food, they starve and die quietly. So in order to influence Pyongyang’s behavior, it has to be hit really hard — in China’s case, that might mean cutting all aid and stopping all shipments of fuel.

Such drastic measures, which approach a land blockade, would likely destabilize the fragile domestic situation inside North Korea, with regime collapse being a probable outcome.

For China, collapse of the North Korean state would mean millions of refugees, many of them armed soldiers, crossing into China. That would increase instability in some of China’s major industrial and population centers. Finally, it would result in a loss of control over North Korea’s stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium, as well as chemical and biological weapons.

The longer-term consequences of a North Korean implosion are also unwelcome to Beijing. It would probably lead to the unification of the country under Seoul, depriving China of a strategic buffer and, even worse, creating a large U.S. ally. The alternative — military intervention — is a costly and risky option that Beijing would prefer to avoid….

China will make gestures of condemnation and, contrary to what some China-bashers believe, they will be sincere. But Beijing will not go much further: It will do nothing that might jeopardize the internal stability in the North. Like any rational player, China prefers to stick with a lesser evil.

via the Marmot’s Hole

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