Beijing, China - North Korea has long chomped at the Chinese hand that feeds it. Even as Beijing has buoyed the North’s moribund economy with aid and shielded it from the brunt of UN sanctions intended to curb its nuclear programme, Pyongyang has irked its benefactor with brinkmanship.
The isolated North chafes at close dependence on its ally from the 1950-53 Korean War, but a shared wariness of US intentions in Northeast Asia has kept it and China locked in a maladroit embrace.
Pyongyang’s position as a buffer between China’s northeast and democratic South Korea where 28,500 US troops are stationed has allowed it to enjoy Beijing’s tacit backing nearly indefinitely.
Despite vocal Chinese opposition, North Korea has recently raised tensions on the Korean peninsula to their highest level in six decades. Since February, Pyongyang has conducted a third nuclear weapons test, abrogated the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and threatened to attack South Korea and the United States, dashing hopes that the regime of young Kim Jong-un would be more conciliatory than that of his father, Kim Jong-il.
North Korea insists that UN sanctions be lifted and the US and South Korea terminate their annual joint military exercises as conditions for entering talks with the allies.
Fang Fenghui, China’s top general, said the North may have a fourth nuclear test in the works after a meeting in Beijing earlier this week with his counterpart General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Associated Press reported.
Hard to change course
“The North Korean military wants to see Kim Jong-un prove he is tough,” Charles Armstrong, director of the Korean Center for Research at Columbia University told Al Jazeera. “It would be very hard for him to change course now even if he wanted to.”
Kim is consolidating his power, said Nicholas Hamisevicz, director of research and academics at the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute. He added: “Provocations are a good way to find out where loyalties lie.”
Follow coverage of escalating threats in Northeast Asia
The United States – and many Western observers – think China could do more to reign in North Korea, such as threatening to cut off vital energy or food exports. Yet Beijing insists it has limited leverage over its truculent neighbour, whose state ideology Juche emphasises self-reliance.
China fears a rupture of economic ties with North Korea could destabilise the impoverished country, with a disaster scenario inducing collapse and a refugee crisis on its border.
It is uncertain how the jingoistic North Korean regime would respond if China tried to strong-arm it, said Rod Wye, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London and former British diplomat posted in Beijing.
Seongho Sheen, an assistant professor at Seoul National University and expert on Korean peninsula politics, believes Pyongyang’s resilience should not be discounted. “The regime is willing to sacrifice anything to survive, and I think China understands that. The Chinese are more concerned with regime stability than denuclearisation,” Sheen said.
Targeting the elite
Pyongyang’s provocations did prompt Beijing to throw its weight behind a harsh new round of UN sanctions passed in March targeting the reclusive state’s financial transactions and arms procurement. The sanctions require countries to inspect cargo bound for North Korea suspected to contain contraband that could be used for Pyongyang’s missile or nuclear programs. They also prohibit the export to North Korea of luxury items favoured by its elite, such as yachts and automobiles.
With extensive commercial links between China’s northeastern provinces and North Korea, the sanctions must be enforced at the local level to be effective, said Armstrong of Columbia University. “There’s a great deal to be gained from the cross-border traffic of goods on the Chinese side, for both local governments and businesses,” he said.
China has a spotty record of enforcing prior sanctions against North Korea, he added.
Indeed, China seems unlikely to curtail its support for the discommodious neighbour it first rescued from oblivion during the Korean War at the cost of 183,000 Chinese lives, among them erstwhile Chairman Mao Zedong’s son Anying.
“The strategic value of the Korean peninsula is eternal,” wrote Chen Fengjun, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies, in a March editorial for the English-language Global Times, a nationalist-leaning tabloid owned by the official Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily.
North Korea has tried on a number of occasions to reform in a very selective way - it has a number of special economic zones - but has been wary of opening too far
Chen believes a stable North Korea acts as a check on hegemonic US ambitions in Northeast Asia. For Beijing, that means “the cost of abandoning North Korea is much higher than that of protecting it.”
That hard-nosed view of regional security may explain why China has been willing to let ties with its major trading partner South Korea slide rather than risk alienating the North.
China failed to condemn North Korea for its torpedoing of a South Korean warship in 2010 that claimed the lives of 46 South Korean sailors.
“What China has not done very successfully is manage its relationship with South Korea,” said Wye of Chatham House. “That has led to a visible strengthening of US-South Korea links.”
Washington and Seoul signed a new military pact in March that details how the allies will respond to provocations by the North.
Some prominent Chinese foreign-policy thinkers are urging Beijing to take a tougher line with Pyongyang. If Kim Jong-un fails to change his behaviour, China “may send him to the sidelines,” wrote Zhu Jing, a professor of international relations at Peking University in an April opinion piece for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
Following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February, Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University, called for China to “cut North Korea loose,” in an op-ed published for Washington-based Foreign Policy. Pyongyang’s bellicosity has destabilised Northeast Asia and given Washington reason to bulwark its regional military presence, he wrote.
In a March lecture to a Shanghai audience about China’s soft power, Shen expressed scepticism about Pyongyang’s ability to reform its institutions. “North Korea has no courage to learn from China’s experience,” he said.
“North Korea has tried on a number of occasions to reform in a very selective way - it has a number of special economic zones - but has been wary of opening too far,” said Armstrong of Columbia University.
North Korea is eager for commercial relations with other nations than China – the US in particular - but is hemmed in by its uncompromising political system, he added.
Trade with China comprised more than 70 percent of North Korea’s commerce in 2011, up from just over 57 percent a year earlier, said a report issued last December by the national statistics office of South Korea.
To date, the impoverished North remains a planned economy with a yearly per capita income of 1.33 million won ($1,190) in 2011, just 1/19th of South Korea’s 25 million won ($22,200), according to the Bank of Korea in Seoul.
The North Korean economy shows no signs of fundamental improvement, with the emergence of a thriving black market creating deep anxiety in the regime, said Sheen of Seoul University. The black market has spawned a new class of elites privy to the perks of capitalism, while the majority of the population’s living standards continue to worsen. That widening economic chasm will ultimately create high levels of tension in the North Korean population, he said.
Sheen added a sombre warning: “Because Kim Jong-un lacks the experience his father had, he could make many bad decisions.”