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China Must Choose on North Korea

We face what appears to be one of the most volatile security threats of the last decade as the two Koreas threaten each other, and us, with talk of war growing graver by the day. We asked Dean Cheng, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation, to tell us just how had things really are and what the PRC's role should be. Cheng's conclusion:

This is a defining moment for Beijing. After North Korea's blatantly unambiguous, and indefensible act of sinking the South Korean Navy's ship, the Cheonan, Beijing is either going to side with the angels or the demons. South Korea, the US, and even Japan should mobilize global pressure on China to join in the international response to North Korean aggression.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and North Korea are both Communist countries, and North Korea depends on China for access to oil and other sundry resources. The implication has often been that North Korea dances to Beijing’s tune; if only Beijing were to press, then North Korea would come to terms on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to reducing terrorist actions.

But this presumes that North Korea-PRC relations really are as close “as lips and teeth,” as was often claimed in the 1960s. In reality, however, there is real reason to question whether North Korea is especially close to China. North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung was nobody’s puppet; instead, he was very good at playing the USSR and the PRC off against each other, while remaining outside the firm orbit of either. Indeed, North Korea has gone to great lengths to rewrite history, minimizing China’s substantial contributions to the Korean War, despite Chinese casualties that number in the hundreds of thousands.

Moreover, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have rejected following the Chinese path of “Reform and Opening,” in which China has pursued a more capitalist approach to its economy while maintaining political control in the hands of the Communist Party. This has only further increased the gap between Beijing and Pyongyang, since the dependence of the moribund North Korean economy on Chinese largesse has not resulted in North Korean compliance with Chinese interests.

It is also useful to recall that North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 after China had reassured the world that North Korea would not do so. This was sufficiently embarrassing to Beijing to merit a straight-forward rebuke that the test was a “flagrant and brazen” violation. It also resulted in the Chinese joining in the passage of a UN Resolution (1718) condemning the North Korean action.

So, why hasn’t Beijing sought to constrain North Korea? In the first place, North Korea has the ability to threaten the PRC. Not with nuclear weapons (although there is an implicit potential there), but with the threat of refugees. North Korea’s population is under sufficiently tight control that, even in the midst of the 1990s famine, in which an estimated three to five percent of the population starved to death, there was no significant outflow of people. This suggests that the government has the ability to control the flow of people—or to push them out, if need be.

Worse, from Beijing’s perspective, that level of control may be eroding, as North Korea steadily deteriorates. The recent North Korean currency fiasco suggests the government’s control may be declining, in which case more people might seek to flee. Beijing appears unprepared to push the North Koreans over the brink.

Moreover, while the downsides seem clear, the gains for Beijing from a crackdown on their neighbor are not. Eliminating the North Korean nuclear capability (which does not threaten China in any real sense) benefits the ROK, Japan, and the United States, but does not garner anything for the PRC. Pushing the North over the brink, resulting in regime change or even reunification, is even less clearly in Beijing’s interest. The Chinese Communist Party is not known for pursuing altruism as a matter of national policy.

This has now all come to a head in the wake of the Cheonan incident. Past North Korean provocations, ranging from the 1968 assault on the Blue House (South Korea’s presidential residence) aimed at killing then-President Park Chung Hee to the 1976 killing of two American soldiers at the DMZ to the 1983 Rangoon bombing that killed most of the ROK cabinet to the 1987 bombing of a KAL airliner, have all been met with demarches and denunciations—but no direct response. Have we acclimatized North Korea to believing that it can do almost anything and there will be no consequences?

It would seem that this might be the case. In response to ROK President Lee Myung-bak’s calls for restricting trade and North Korean ship transits, North Korea appears to have upped the ante by not only threatening war, but also ending the one link Lee kept open (a joint venture at Kaesong) and suspending all interactions across the 38th Parallel.

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