Why China won’t budge on North Korea

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - WORLD AF­FAIRS

THIS WEEK, DON­ALD TRUMP vis­ited with the lead­ers of Japan, South Korea and China, and the same topic likely dom­i­nated all three con­ver­sa­tions: North Korea. In meet­ing with Trump, Japan’s Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in will be look­ing for re­as­sur­ance that the United States will pro­tect them from North Korea’s nu­clear weapons, but in Bei­jing Trump will be the sup­pli­cant.

The Amer­i­can pres­i­dent will be ask­ing Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping to do some­thing, any­thing, to make North Korea to stop test­ing nu­clear weapons and in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles Trump has painted him­self into a cor­ner with his tongue, but even he knows (or at least has been told many times by his mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers) that there is no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion to this prob­lem that does not in­volve a ma­jor war, and prob­a­bly a lo­cal nu­clear war.

Trump promised that North Korea would never be able to strike the United States with nu­clear weapons, and the re­al­ity is that it will get there quite soon (if it is not al­ready there). The United States has no lever­age over North Korea ex­cept the threat of war, so he needs China to get him off the hook.

China has lots of lever­age: 90 per cent of North Korea’s im­ports come in through China, and most of its for­eign ex­change comes from sell­ing things to China. Bei­jing could leave the North Korean pop­u­la­tion freez­ing and starv­ing in the dark if it chose – but it won’t do that.

Xi Jin­ping may throw Don­ald Trump a cou­ple of small­ish fish – a ban on the sale of blow-dry­ers and chain­saws to North Korea, per­haps – but he won’t do any­thing that ac­tu­ally threat­ens the sur­vival of the North Korean regime. Yet he knows that noth­ing less will sway Kim Jong-un, be­cause the North Korean leader sees his nukes and ICBMs as es­sen­tial to the sur­vival of the regime.

Xi Jin­ping does not love Kim, and he def­i­nitely doesn’t like what he has been do­ing with the nu­clear and mis­sile tests. Kim has even purged the se­nior peo­ple in the North Korean hi­er­ar­chy who were clos­est to China, and Bei­jing still puts up with his be­hav­iour. Why?

Be­cause the sur­vival of com­mu­nist rule in North Korea is seen in Bei­jing as vi­tal – not vi­tal to China as a whole, but to the con­tin­u­a­tion of com­mu­nist rule in China. That may sound weird, but look at it from the point of view of China’s cur­rent rulers.

Al­most all the world’s rul­ing com­mu­nist par­ties have been over­thrown in the past quar­ter-cen­tury. What’s left, apart from the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party (CCP), is just a few odds and ends: North Korea, Cuba, Viet­nam and Laos. And the CCP’s high­est pri­or­ity is not “mak­ing China great again” or build­ing a blue-wa­ter navy or what­ever; it is pro­tect­ing the power of the party.

The Chi­nese lead­er­ship cares about those things too, but ev­ery­thing is al­ways seen through the prism of “Will it strengthen the party’s rule?” Seen through that prism, the col­lapse of the North Korean com­mu­nist regime is a po­ten­tially mor­tal threat to the CCP as well.

The rea­sons that are usu­ally give for Bei­jing’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to keep the North Korean regime afloat just don’t make sense. The Chi­nese com­mu­nists don’t re­ally worry about a flood of North Korean refugees across the border into Manchuria if the North Korean regime falls. They’d mostly go home again af­ter things set­tled down, and be­come happy cit­i­zens of a re­united Korea.

Bei­jing doesn’t stay awake at night wor­ry­ing that a re­united Koea would bring Amer­i­can troops right up to the Chi­nese border ei­ther. It’s ac­tu­ally more likely that U.S. troops would even­tu­ally leave a re­uni­fied Korea. Af­ter all, no­body in Korea wor­ries about a Chi­nese at­tack, so why would the U.S. troops stay?

What truly fright­ens the men in charge in China is see­ing an­other Com­mu­nist regime go down. They were

ter­ri­fied by the col­lapse of the Soviet regime in 198991, and they blame it on the weak­ness and will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise of the Soviet Com­mu­nist Party.

For all their power and all their achieve­ments, they see them­selves as stand­ing with their backs to a cliff. One step back­ward, one show of weak­ness, and they could be over the edge and in freefall. Let­ting Kim Jong-un fall, how­ever much they dis­like him, might un­leash the whirl­wind at home.

That is prob­a­bly not true, but it has been the view of the dom­i­nant group in the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party ever since the Soviet Union fell. They will not push Kim too hard no mat­ter what the cost. And the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff have just told Congress that there is no way the U.S. can elim­i­nate North Korea’s nu­clear weapons with­out a fullscale land in­va­sion.

Con­clu­sion? No mat­ter what the var­i­ous play­ers say now, in the end North Korea will get to keep a mod­est nu­clear de­ter­rent force, but it will have to agree to keep it small enough that it could not pos­si­bly launch a suc­cess­ful first strike. Not that it could even re­motely af­ford to build a force big enough to do that any­way.

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