The road to reality in Pyongyang
China has good reasons for reluctance to put Kim Jong-un on a leash
The road to reality in Pyongyang leads through Beijing, and it’s a road with many potholes. China doesn’t want chaos in North Korea, but neither does it want to give up the means to profit from that chaos. Nevertheless, North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistics missile launch last week caught the attention of the five countries with a stake in a stable Korean peninsula.
China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Russia all have their reasons for reluctance to see a strong, united and independent Korea. South Korea’s becoming the world’s 11th largest economy and the fourth largest in Asia, achieved in a generation, suggests what might happen with the addition to the economy of the North’s extensive minerals.
However tempting it may be destroy a North Korean ICBM and kill Kim Jong-un, this might set off uncontrollable chaos, perhaps even a resumption of the Korean War, which cost 33,686 American dead before a truce calmed the fighting in 1953.
President Trump’s romance with President Xi Ping has turned bitter and sour and Mr. Trump has a point, that since North Korea relies on China for 90 percent of its external trade, including food, and Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear technology largely relies on Chinese loans, President Xi could do something about the crazy fat kid if he really wants to cool tensions on the peninsula.
“Our foolish past leaders have allowed [the Chinese] to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade,” Mr. Trump says, “yet ... they do nothing for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem.”
This simplifies the difficult China-North Korean relationship, however. China includes more than 2.6 million ethnic Koreans, together with 250,000 recent refugees, mostly concentrated along their mutual 800-mile border. Further, there’s a close military alliance formed in the Korean War when Chinese intervention halted Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s advance toward the Yalu River border that briefly appeared to be a de facto reunification of the two Koreas. China is not eager to deal with the collapse of North Korea, like that in Germany, once the strongest satellite of the old Soviet Bloc.
Despite limited measures to squeeze Pyongyang economically in response to United Nations and U.S. sanctions against its missile and nuclear programs, trade between China and North Korea has steadily increased, up 37 percent over last year in the first quarter. In February China temporarily suspended coal imports and it might support banning oil exports to North Korea if Pyongyang conducts further nuclear tests. Some Chinese officials have urged that it do so. Regional analysts say that would strongly, and profitably, warn that China is “losing patience” with Kim Jong-un. Others suggest these moves are merely tactical.
North Korea’s diversion of resources to the world’s largest military establishment — 5,889,000 persons assigned to paramilitary forces, 25 percent of the population of the country — produced famine in the 1990s. Between 800,000 and 2.4 million died. In June 2015 North Korea suffered its worst drought in decades and the next year devastating floods followed.
The United States may now have to punish Chinese firms pushing North Korean exports much in the way it dealt with counterfeit currency operations in the first decade of the new century. With the Chinese economy now experiencing declining growth and the government encouraging domestic consumption, China is newly vulnerable to such a campaign. This would add new friction to U.S.China relations, but it may soon be necessary.