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Is China ready to abandon North Korea?

Gérard Roland, E. Morris Cox professor of economics and professor of political science | March 8, 2013

The most surprising fact about the increased sanctions against North Korea voted in the U.N. Security Council on March 7, following North Korean nuclear tests in February this year is China’s strong support for tightened sanctions. Even though China opposes North Korea’s nuclear program, it has traditionally acted as its ally, providing economic support together with a clearly stated support for regime continuation in Pyongyang.

There are however some visible signs that the new Chinese leaders may be reconsidering their support of North Korea. Deng Yuwen, the deputy editor of the journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China, wrote on February 27 a revealing article in the Financial Times “China Should Abandon North Korea”.

The article, which did not go unnoticed in China and Asia, is interesting not only because of its title but also because of its tone of utter disillusionment with the Pyongyang regime. It claims that shared communist ideology is not a reason to support North Korea, and that the differences between the North Korean regime and China are larger than those between China and the West. Moreover, the North Korean regime is not willing to engage in economic reforms and is therefore doomed to fail. Why continuing supporting a regime that is bound to collapse sooner or later?

Moreover, North Korea has no use as a geopolitical ally to China. It is more of a nuisance because North Korea’s aggressive stance is only likely to increase unnecessary tensions with the U.S. and in Northeast Asia.

Finally, North Korean possession of nuclear weapons can also be used to blackmail China, not only South Korea and the U.S.. The simple fact that this article was published in such a visible media outlet is an indication that the new Chinese leaders may be reconsidering their position toward North Korea. China has tried to pursue two conflicting objectives in North Korea: on the one hand, it does not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons; on the other hand, it has shown its desire to keep the North Korean communist regime in place.

The Chinese leaders are realizing that these objectives are becoming increasingly contradictory. It is becoming increasingly clear that the North Korean leaders are not willing to abandon their nuclear program, however much economic and political support China may be willing to give them in exchange.

The North Korean leaders believe that abandoning their nuclear program would be suicidal, as they cannot trust the Chinese not to drop in the future their support for the regime. They have been consistently using their nuclear program to blackmail the international community to provide life-support for their agonizing economy. South Korean leaders have understood that providing aid to North Korea will do nothing to liberalize the regime and to shut down their nuclear program. The Chinese leaders seem to start understanding this too.

It is too soon to say whether China is ready to abandon North Korea, but one thing is certain: China holds the largest key to ease tensions and promote a peaceful unification process in the Korean peninsula.

Comments to “Is China ready to abandon North Korea?

  1. Professor Roland, I got some information I never would have known from reading this blog. But some of the comments left me confused. Where did the ideas and opinions expressed by Ms. (?) Thayabaran. There is no documentation and they run counter to what I’ve been hearing in the news. Thanks for your straight-forward reporting.

  2. The Korean War is known in China as the “Anti-American War”. As the American empire enters its terminal decline, we should expect more tension in its regional outposts (e.g., South Korea).

  3. North Korean leadership realizes that the overwhelming power of the United States nuclear machine with 3,000 operational and 7,000 nuclear weapons overall would, turn their country into a charcoal briquette and the United States’ strategy with the right-wing government in South Korea in pressuring China, North Korea’s traditional ally, to go along with the program since China fears that there’s growing danger of an actual war in the Pacific to isolate North Korea. North Korea has carried out a nuclear test, the third responding to the major massive United States military exercises that are conducted in a way to stage a mock invasion and bombing of North Korea which was indeed invaded. Twenty years ago after the demise of the Soviet Union the United States strategic command reoriented hydrogen bombs away from the Soviet Union and targeting North Korea. And that’s when the North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and began building its own nuclear capacity.

    Last month North Korea said the lesson of the Libyan and the Iraq invasion when the United States either invaded or bombed governments that were targeted, that both of those governments had agreed to disarm, had abandoned any weapons of mass destruction, and the North Korean interpretation of that is, if you disarm, the United States will not say, “Thank you, let’s have peace”, but the United States will say, “Thank you, now we can prepare more aggressively for an invasion or a bombing campaign.” North Korea is determined not to let that happen, and that’s how they view the development of their nuclear arsenal – it’s strictly defensive, it’s not a threat.

    The economic sanctions by United States are having a very big impact and are now basically depriving North Korea of access to international banking. United States hopes if it can break China, it will do it to North Korea what it did to Iraq as a precursor to regime change. China is pursuing an appeasement foreign policy with the United States after the Barack Obama announced the pivot of Asia. The United States is militarizing its presence in the Pacific; China is very worried that the Korean Peninsula could become a spark causing a larger conflagration right on its own boundaries. So China is upset with North Korea, but North Korea isn’t listening to China, North Korean leadership is not thinking mainly about China but it is thinking how it can avoid being collapsed, either by economic sanctions, or military pressure, or combination of both.

    United States needs to stop threatening North Korea and needs to sign a peace treaty, which it refuses to do, and actually end the Korean War, rather than just armistice, which was on July 26, 1953, 60 years ago. United States needs to lift the sanctions, and need to normalize relations. That almost happened in the last eight days of the Bill Clinton administration, it was the beginning of a thaw, the United States could go by that road, but it seems that the Barack Obama is acting a lot like George W. Bush.

    The Korean Peninsula is so hot and tense; it’s the most heavily-militarized part of the world. Even though none of the countries want a full-scale war, any small incident in the Korean Peninsula could lead to both sides stepping on the escalation ladder. The need now is to reduce tensions, and the onus for that is not on North Korea which is not threatening the United States, it’s the United States that should stop carrying out war games simulating the invasion and bombing of North Korea and lift sanctions.

  4. It’s sad, but it is true that a belligerent North Korea is the only thing that can remind South Korea, Japan, and China that they share common interest and collective fate. Just a month ago, Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing were ready to go to war over some barren rocks in the ocean. It took nothing less than a threat of nuclear annihilation to recognize that peace in East Asia is precious and that it cannot be held hostage to some hollow sense of historical injustice or national pride.

    I hope that North Korea will hold out long enough for South Korea, Japan, and China to mature politically. The greatest threat to peace and prosperity in East Asia is not the North Korean regime, but the lack of intellectual, cultural, and political vision that will yank East Asia from 1895-1945 into 2013.

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