Can China Stop North Korea?

Why Beijing has less leverage over its troublesome neighbor than you think.

After a brief lull, North Korea has begun acting up again: Kim Jong Un has vowed to re-start the country's nuclear program, has declared the near-60 year-old armistice between his country and South Korea "void", and, in his latest provocation, has prevented workers from the South from entering the jointly-owned Kaesong Industrial Park, once a symbol of hopeful reconciliation. And so the usual cycle continues: Pyongyang rattles, Washington steams, and Beijing expresses "regret" and "hope" for peace on the Korean peninsula.

China's reticence in dealing with North Korea is, in a way, puzzling; After all, Beijing isn't shy in protecting its national interests in the East China Sea, standing up to countries like Japan and the Philippines. China is also North Korea's only ally and, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, provides 90 percent of North Korea's energy imports, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food. If China suddenly decided to cut ties to its mercurial neighbor, North Korea would almost certainly collapse.

That, precisely, is the point: China really, really doesn't want North Korea to collapse. For one thing, the trickle of North Koreans currently crossing the border would turn into a flood, leaving China with a messy humanitarian situation on its hands. Secondly, a North Korean collapse would no doubt foster the creation of a unified, pro-U.S. Korea on China's northeastern flank, depriving Beijing of a valuable buffer against American interest. For these reasons, China needs North Korea to stay alive -- and North Korea knows it. 

Beijing wants  Pyongyang to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms, as this would enable North Korea to wean itself off of Chinese support and become more stable. The United States and the rest of the international community would probably find this acceptable, too. So why doesn't it happen?

Two reasons. First, North Korea is historically wary of Chinese influence, dating back to the inception of the country after World War II. According to Andrew Scobell, a China expert at the RAND Corporation, founding leader Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Un's grandfather) actually purged ethnic Korean Communists who studied in China, fearful that they constituted a potential fifth column. And when global Communism cratered following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea increasingly embraced juche, or self-dependence, as a national ideology. As Scobell notes, "North Korea just isn't comfortable with China's dominant role in its economy." 

Secondly, the Kim regime fears that implementing reforms might reduce its grip on political power, even though this hasn't happened (yet) in China. Pyongyang has experimented with small-scale reforms in the past, but has always stopped well short of abandoning its command-style economic system. Why? Scobell says that "they're afraid of reforming the regime out of existence."

Is there a chance this situation might change? Possibly. Kim Jong-un has apparently installed a Prime Minister who favors Chinese-style economic reforms, indicating that the president may be open to tinkering at the margins. But in the short term, it appears likely that  both China and the United States will calm Kim down, promise future avenues for cooperation, and then wait and see what happens next. 

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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