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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why China won't get serious about North Korea

North Korea is continuing its effort to provoke the international community by showing outward signs of aggression. Monday's nuclear test was followed up with multiple short-range missile tests and new reports indicate that Pyongyang is preparing to test another long-range missile. North Korea's recent provocations have been widely condemned by the international community, including Russia and China, the countries historic allies.

While it would seem as though China holds enough leverage over North Korea to be a vital player in the effort to stop these weapons tests, China has historically blocked the security council from taking a strong stance against Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and there is little reason to believe things will be different this time around.

China has numerous economic and political considerations that prevent it from taking the tough stance many other countries would like to see. China's trade with North Korea has grown considerably in the past decade, quadrupling between 1999 and 2006 to $1.6 billion annually. Aside from this trade being important to China's economy, it is even more important to the North Korean economy, which imports 90 per cent of its daily oil supply and approximately half of its food imports from China. If China were to cut off its trade with North Korea, the regime would likely collapse, which could potentially send millions of impoverished refugees into China, creating a major headache for Beijing.

China does, however, have many other considerations to take into account. In a recent column in The Washington Post, John Pomfret provides some unique insights into China's geopolitical concerns:

Why is China so intent on "regime maintenance"? If North Korea collapses a few things happen.

  • First, about 2 million people will rush into China's northeast as refugees.…
  • Second, China will be faced with a tough decision: dispatch the PLA into North Korea? What happens if the PLA meets up with the South Korean or U.S. armies heading north?
  • Third, remember all that South Korean investment in China? We're talking billions. It would all go home, into building a united country.…
  • Fourth, a North Korean collapse means that China can forget about turning North Korea into an economic vassal state.…
  • Fifth, how would a united Korean peninsula change China's geopolitical position? It definitely wouldn't help it.…
  • Six, China's ethnic Korean population along North Korea's border is not known for being restive. But what happens to those folks once the Korean peninsula is united? Greater Korea, anyone?

Another broader factor also plays into the problems on the Korean peninsula. And that's this: For decades the United States has assumed that it could mold China into an ally.… We can't outsource the solution to North Korea's nukes to China because China views its interests a lot differently than we do. Sure, China would rather not see Pyongyang have the bomb. But if given the choice between a nuclear-armed North Korea and no North Korea at all, Beijing will go with the former.

Further analysis on the ongoing situation on the Korean peninsula from Rob Breakenridge, Peter Goodspeed, and yours truly.

Posted by Jesse Kline on May 31, 2009 in International Affairs | Permalink


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