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What can China do about North Korea?

Beijing sees advantage in maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula

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Special To The Japan Times

North Korea’s May 14 missile launch, regarded by some analysts as the regime’s most successful missile test to date due to the 700 km traveled and altitude of 2,000 km reached, is a significant advancement toward developing nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as a test for South Korea’s new left-leaning leader, President Moon Jae-in.

The test also reminds the world community of the menace posed by Pyongyang, renewing calls by Washington and its allies for China to do more to curb North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s behavior.

Since the Clinton administration, policymakers have remarked of China’s influence with North Korea and its ability to compel the regime toward change.

They point to China’s deep historical and cultural ties with the Korean Peninsula over the millenniums as well as to Beijing’s North Korea policy over the last six-plus decades. Through sustained economic and geopolitical support for North Korea since the 1950s, it is argued, China has demonstrated its strategic interests in ensuring the Kim dynasty’s survival.

All true.

Yet, it bears asking, what concrete steps can China take to change North Korea’s behavior? Also, to what extent is China willing to act, given its national interests?

Unquestionably, China has considerable economic leverage over North Korea given the North’s dependence on Beijing for its energy and food supplies. Roughly 80 percent of North Korea’s trade is conducted with China. Taking this into consideration, many assert that China can alter North Korea’s actions simply by cutting off commercial ties.

Some contend that China’s civilizational ties to the Korean people, its support for the North during the Korean War and its 60-plus year role as a political, ideological and economic partner give it a moral authority and sway with the Kim regime that other powers just do not have.

Others claim that China’s rise and current trajectory toward becoming the world’s next superpower give it more clout with Pyongyang than it ever had before.

As recent events indicate, however, Beijing’s influence with Pyongyang has its limits. One could argue that the bevy of missile tests in recent years — including the nine missile launches during U.S. leader Donald Trump’s young presidency alone — is a way of North Korea asserting its independence from China.

However, it is also the case that Beijing sees advantage in maintaining both the status quo and balance of power on the Korean Peninsula.

It’s time that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo come to grips with this reality: Beijing is willing to live with a Pyongyang that is armed with the capability to carry out nuclear strikes far beyond its shores. Why? Because taking measures to forcibly change North Korea’s conduct runs counter to Beijing’s strategic interests in these ways:

Regime collapse: A heavy hand by Beijing may contribute to the fall of Kim’s regime. One consequence of a North Korean government collapse would be a flood of refugees pouring into China and the South, creating an expensive humanitarian nightmare for Beijing and Seoul.

Such a scenario may also result in Seoul coming to control the North’s territory, ending North Korea’s role as a buffer state for China. Such a development would be a strategic catastrophe for Beijing as it would bring the entire peninsula under the influence of Washington and, in Beijing’s eyes, threaten its territorial sovereignty.

Instability and loose nukes: Chinese moves to clamp down on North Korea may create instability in Pyongyang’s government and security apparatus, increasing chances of parts of its nuclear arsenal getting into the wrong hands. Such a development would pose as a national security risk to China, particularly if the weapons came into the possession of groups inside China who are hostile to Beijing’s rule, such as Uyghur militant groups .

Backlash: Strong efforts by Beijing to curtail Pyongyang may result in the regime lashing out and creating a security or diplomatic crisis. Such tactics have been used by the North in years past for purposes of exacting food, energy and hard currency from other states.

Hostilities: Kim may resort to attacks on the South as a bargaining chip for concessions by Beijing or if he believes that measures taken against him threaten his regime’s existence. This would effectively return Washington and Beijing to a war footing on the peninsula, if not outright armed conflict itself, if not handled carefully.

Should Beijing change its mind and conclude that a nuclear strike-capable North Korea is intolerable and against its interests, it has an option that would raise prospects for both changing Pyongyang’s behavior and attaining peace in the region: becoming the North’s security guarantor.

China could negotiate an agreement where it provides for North Korea’s security, creating the conditions for the North to relinquish its nuclear program.

It should be noted that some assert this prospect is without merit, arguing that the purposes behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons program are to avoid the fates of Iraq President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi (both of whose regimes were overthrown by outside powers), and to vanquish the South, uniting the Korean Peninsula under the Kim regime’s rule.

These considerations aside, it is improbable at best that Beijing will see it in its interests to oblige Kim to change course, forcing Washington and its partners to consider other approaches.

Ted Gover is a political science instructor at Central Texas College, Camp Pendleton , California .