What can China do to re­solve the mis­sile cri­sis?

Bei­jing fears a mass in­flux of refugees from North Korea if the food runs out

The Irish Times - - World News - Clif­ford Coo­nan What kind of re­la­tion­ship does China have with North Korea? in Bei­jing

On the sur­face, th­ese two cold war brothers-in-arms have an aw­ful lot in com­mon, but six nu­clear tests have sorely tested Bei­jing’s pa­tience with the coun­try it has pre­vi­ously de­scribed as be­ing “as close as lips and teeth”.

It seems bizarre how far North Korea is pre­pared to push China. Bei­jing is North Korea’s only sig­nif­i­cant ally, an ide­o­log­i­cal com­rade that fought shoul­der-to-shoul­der against the Amer­i­cans in the Korean War (1950-53).

Since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, China has stepped in as North Korea’s main bene­fac­tor, sup­ply­ing food and fuel aid for the North, and try­ing to oc­cupy a sim­i­lar role to the North Kore­ans that the US oc­cu­pies with the South Kore­ans.

China ap­pears luke­warm on United Na­tions sanc­tions, although it has backed re­cent rounds. Why is this?

China is noth­ing if not prag­matic, and its re­luc­tance to back sanc­tions is in­formed by its wor­ries about their im­pact on a highly un­sta­ble neigh­bour. Bei­jing fears a mass in­flux of refugees from North Korea if the fuel and food run out. Also, the Kim gov­ern­ment would most likely be re­placed with a US-backed ad­min­is­tra­tion, which China does not want on its bor­ders.

The Chi­nese are also scep­ti­cal about the ef­fect of sanc­tions. They have watched the re­peated fail­ure of eco­nomic sanc­tions to make any dif­fer­ence, whether in con­tem­po­rary Rus­sia or Fidel Cas­tro’s Cuba. It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that North Korea ap­pears bet­ter able to tol­er­ate hard­ship than most. In the famine that hit the coun­try in the 1990s, up to 3.5 mil­lion of the coun­try’s 22 mil­lion peo­ple are thought to have died, and the gov­ern­ment did not bat an eye­lid.

What is driv­ing the North Kore­ans to­wards th­ese con­stant provo­ca­tions?

For North Korea, the nu­clear ar­ma­ments pro­gramme has been driven by the be­lief that the US and South Korea want to de­stroy it and fin­ish the job started dur­ing the Korean War, which ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

North Korea has an army of 1.2 mil­lion troops, and it is re­port­edly strug­gling to feed them. A nu­clear de­ter­rent is a far cheaper, and more ef­fec­tive, way of fight­ing what it sees as US ag­gres­sion in the re­gion.

So, does China re­ally have much in­flu­ence over its ally?

Although Don­ald Trump firmly be­lieves that Bei­jing has huge in­flu­ence over North Korea, this is not nec­es­sar­ily true, de­spite ap­pear­ances. On the sur­face, the two com­mu­nist neigh­bours and wartime al­lies should be work­ing in con­cert. Zhang De­jiang, a key fig­ure on the rul­ing Polit­buro Stand­ing Com­mit­tee, stud­ied at the Kim Il-sung Univer­sity in Py­ongyang in the 1970s. China chaired six-party talks fea­tur­ing both Koreas, the US, Rus­sia and Ja­pan, but to no avail.

China dis­likes the in­sta­bil­ity in the re­gion but North Korea has treated it just as dis­mis­sively as all the other play­ers in the nu­clear stand-off on the Korean Penin­sula. China has long given North Korea the ben­e­fit of the doubt. Any lever­age Bei­jing had over North Korea has evap­o­rated with this lat­est nu­clear test.

Is China right to say that di­a­logue is the only way to re­solve the cri­sis?

Prob­a­bly. But con­stantly re­peat­ing that only di­a­logue will re­solve the nu­clear stand-off is no longer enough. China now has the op­por­tu­nity to step up and ac­tu­ally put pres­sure on the North to get to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. It’s also a tac­ti­cal ne­ces­sity.

North Korea has an army of 1.2 mil­lion troops, and it is re­port­edly strug­gling to feed them

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