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Reasons why Beijing won’t push Pyongyang

by John Pomfret

The Washington Post

In his memoirs, former U.S. President George W. Bush recounts a story about North Korea and China. In October 2002, he invited China’s then-president, Jiang Zemin, to his Texas ranch. North Korea was developing nuclear weapons, and Bush wanted China’s help. According to Bush, Jiang told him that “North Korea was my problem, not his.” China did nothing.

A few months later, Bush tried a different tack. He told Jiang in January 2003 that if North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continued, the United States would not be able to stop Japan from developing its own nuclear arsenal. Still nothing.

A month later he warned China that if the problem was not solved diplomatically he would consider a military strike against North Korea. Only at that point did China react. Talks with North Korea were commenced, but the hermit kingdom continued its nuclear program and last month conducted its third nuclear test.

Bush’s memoirs provide a lesson to those who believe that China holds the key to the North Korean nuclear problem — an issue that could turn northeast Asia into the most dangerous region on Earth.

From the start, Beijing has been a reluctant partner with the U.S. on this crisis and has shown little interest in making the hard decisions needed to force Pyongyang to give up the bomb.

To be sure, China worked closely with the U.S. in drafting the latest U.N. sanctions on North Korea, and some top officials, including the grandson of Chairman Mao Zedong, have openly criticized Kim Jong Un’s regime. China’s new president, Xi Jinping, is rumored to be open to different tactics, but that doesn’t change the basic issue as far as Beijing is concerned. Simply put, China’s leaders don’t buy the U.S. argument that it is in Beijing’s interests to work with Washington to solve the North Korean nuclear mess. And if you were a Communist Party boss in Beijing, you might not either.

The reasons are both ideological and historical. First, China’s main interest in North Korea is not denuclearization; it is ensuring that the North Korean government does not fall. While Beijing might be exasperated with the Kim dynasty’s uncanny ability to wag China’s dog, China will support Pyongyang because the alternative, a North Korean collapse, is worse. While many South Koreans fear the cost of unification with their brothers to the north, China opposes that even more stridently.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees would pour into neighboring China. Then China would have to determine how to deal with South Korean and U.S. troops who would move to secure the North’s nuclear weapons.

Beijing would also be faced with millions of Korean-Chinese inspired by a new, united homeland. The issue of a potential North Korean collapse is so sensitive that Chinese officials have declined repeated U.S. entreaties to discuss scenarios of how to avoid clashes when and if it happens.

Clearly for Beijing, the presence of a communist buffer state, even an irritating one, between China and South Korea remains critical. A Korean Peninsula united under the South would pose a huge challenge to China’s political system. East Germany is the parallel some Chinese use when asked why China won’t squeeze Pyongyang: The Soviet Union collapsed when the Berlin Wall fell. If the no-man’s land separating North and South Korea were breached, could the same thing happen to Beijing?

China has also always believed it necessary to control at least a part of the Korean Peninsula. In 1894, China’s last dynasty, the Qing, fought its first war with Japan over who would lead the Korean kingdom. China lost. Obviously, China doesn’t call all the shots in North Korea today, but its influence over Pyongyang is significantly larger than it would be over a united Korea with its capital in Seoul.

Finally, there’s an unstated reason for China’s reluctance to squeeze North Korea, underscored by Jiang’s comment to Bush that Pyongyang’s bomb was America’s problem, not China’s.

Parts of the Chinese Communist Party-state believe that a nuclear North Korea complicates U.S. security calculations more than it does China’s. And to them, that is not a bad thing.

U.S. officials have beseeched their Chinese counterparts for years to get tough with North Korea, arguing that Beijing’s policy is not in China’s long-term interests. But the Chinese think two things when they ponder more pressure and the specter of unification on the Korean Peninsula — neither of them good. They recall the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Sino-Japanese War. Communism lost the first, and China lost the second.

John Pomfret, a longtime Washington Post foreign correspondent and editor, is the author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.”

  • LK312

    China won’t budge unless the US threatens to use the weapon that China fears most: the US revoking China’s “most favored nation” trade status. Without it, Chinese goods would be too costly to sell in the US and would quickly cause huge upheaval in the Chinese economy. It would hurt the US economy also, but the US has a great deal of excess plant capacity and there are many alternate low-cost countries to which US and foreign companies could move their manufacturing (indeed, many now have lower labor costs than China).

    As for the idea that China could retaliate by selling its US treasuries, the reality is that its power is limited. Without China buying treasuries, in theory, the effective interest rates on the treasuries should rise, in order to attrack more buyers. However, the US has record low interest rates and the Fed could buy the treasuries to stabilize the decline in the value of the dollar, which China has kept artificially inflated to keep the yuan and its exports cheap. The US could certainly handle a dollar decline and a bit of inflation right now, but China’s political regime couild not withstand the double whammy of inflation (due to no longer holding down the yuan through US treasury purchases) and the sudden loss of demand for its exports. Indeed, at the end of the day, being an export dependent economy is inherently risky, if you’re main trading partner is your geopolitical rival with an economy that is driven by domestic consumption.
    This is why somebody also needs to explain the economic aspects of war with the US or its allies to China’s military generals whenever they get the crazy idea of provoking a war with Japan or fail to reign in N. Korea. The US is still the most powerful country in the world – economically and militarily – and it will defend its allies, first and foremost out of principle in standing with democratic allies, even though it would prefer to avoid confrontation, if at all possible.