In a previous article, I described North Korea as a “wicked problem,” one for which there is no – or no tolerable – solution. That was with respect to the United States.
Now, however, a review of recent events involving North Korea in conjunction with the dynamics between Pyongyang and Beijing since Kim Jong Un came to power in late 2011 clearly demonstrates that North Korea has become a wicked problem for China as well.
To begin, we need to understand that high on China’s list of security priorities is the need for a buffer between its Northeastern prefectures and pro-West South Korea. North Korea – pain in the neck though it may well be – serves that purpose quite well.
Yet an unrestrained and possibly uncontrollable Pyongyang poses a distinct threat to regional stability, and thus by extension to Beijing’s security. China would indeed like to rein in its insubordinate dependent, but North Korea has the upper hand, despite being the smaller and by far the weaker of the two: Beijing needs Pyongyang.
STRING OF DISRESPECT
Relations between the two countries are strained for a number of reasons. For one thing, consider that, despite having come into power more than five years ago, Kim Jong Un has yet to meet with Xi Jinping, notwithstanding the fact that China is the ultimate guarantor of North Korea. Without Beijing’s lax enforcement of UN and other sanctions, Pyongyang would be in serious trouble.
China’s list of security priorities is the need for a buffer between its Northeastern prefectures and pro-West South Korea
It is thought that 90% of all trade goods for North Korea are from China and 75% of those go through China’s port of Dandong, across the Yalu River from the North Korean city of Uiju. China could easily shut that down – if it wanted to do so – and Pyongyang would suffer.
Recall that it was China who hosted the ill-fated Six-Party Talks that stumbled along for six years until North Korea walked out in 2009. Such an act was a direct and egregious insult to Beijing, and Pyongyang was most assuredly aware of that.
Moreover, when Kim Jong Un executed his uncle Jang Song Taek in 2013, he did not merely eliminate a perceived threat to his rule, he purged a friend of China. Jang was not only the point man for Pyongyang’s business dealings with China, he was well-known and respected in Beijing. Much of what North Korea got from China was in no small part due to Jang’s dealings, and his execution shocked Chinese officials.
Pyongyang has tested nuclear weapons five times, the first in 2006 and the second in 2009; however, in the short time under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has detonated three nuclear devices: one in 2013 and two in 2016. China has not been pleased, and was not even informed in advance about either of the 2016 tests.
As for provocative missiles launches, China has been opposed to them as well, recognizing – though not publically admitting – that North Korea’s missiles are the proximate cause of the U.S. deciding to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea.
Despite Washington’s insistence that THAAD is not directed at Beijing’s missiles, China is still unhappy – it would not take much to focus THAAD on China.
Now, we learn that Kim Jong Nam, the dissolute half-brother of Kim Jong Un, has been killed. While all the evidence is not yet in and even though some of what we know is circumstantial, there is enough to suggest it is highly likely that North Korea is behind the act. Since Kim Jong Nam was thought to have been under the protection of China, his murder is an unmistakable affront to Beijing.
China at first vetoed UN sanctions for obvious reasons, though it was clear to seasoned observers that Beijing was not happy with its “little brother.” Recently, Beijing has given at least lip service to sanctions by not vetoing the last two sanctions measures at the UN. However, enforcement of those sanctions has been lax, to put it in the best possible terms.
Those two times were in March 2016 (UNSC 2270) and November 2016 (UNSC 2321), when China acquiesced to international pressure for it to exercise a bit of control over its recalcitrant beneficiary. Votes for those sanctions – even though riddled with loopholes – were intended to send a message to Pyongyang, but the meaning behind Beijing’s actions was disregarded by Pyongyang.
When Kim Jong Un executed his uncle Jang Song Taek in 2013, he did not merely eliminate a perceived threat to his rule, he purged a friend of China
Just recently, however, China announced that it would not be accepting any more coal shipments from North Korea for the rest of 2017, a rather striking statement that is likely intended as one more attempt to get North Korea to understand just how upset Beijing is about Pyongyang’s recent nuclear detonation and missiles tests.
The latest shipment is estimated to have been worth $1 million. Last year, coal exports by North Korea were thought to approach $1 billion, a rather hefty sum for an isolated and impoverished country. The loss to Pyongyang is significant.
Does China mean it this time? Perhaps Beijing does mean business – for the time being and for this particular commodity. After all, China can get coal from other, non-sanctioned sources. However, it is doubtful that Beijing will enforce sanctions in the long run or for all prohibited North Korean goods.
In the end, China cannot win
Strict enforcement of all sanctions would likely result in unwanted instability in North Korea – or worse. Beijing will continue to feed the beast that bites it. For the time being, though, the embargo on North Korean coal will cause some noticeable economic pain and focus Kim Jong Un’s attention.
If the past is any indicator of what response Pyongyang will take, this will merely cause North Korea to extract more loyalty funds from jangmadang (black and gray markets) enterprises and to increase the number of exit visas so that more North Korean laborers can earn foreign hard currency out of country.
The ones that will suffer will not be Pyongyang’s elites but the common people– and the donju, the new money master middle class, now responsible for keeping the country alive.
Will China allow additional North Korea workers in to earn the cash so desperately needed by the North? That seems likely, and Russia might accept more North Korean cheap labor as well. But the acceptance of additional North Korean workers will be strictly under the table – and China will expect considerations from the West for its “tighter” enforcement of “sanctions” regarding the coal.
OUT OF OPTIONS
However, in the end, China cannot win. Either Beijing attempts to control Pyongyang through drastic enforcement of sanctions, which would likely cause a great deal of instability in North Korea, or it comes to accept a rogue nuclear state on its doorstep, one over which China has no control. Neither outcome is desirable, but what other options exist?
One fantasy comes to mind, the notion that some grand bargain between China and South Korea – necessarily along with the United States – can be reached regarding the safe dissolution of the North Korea regime.
Unfortunately, the chain of what-ifs and their associated contingencies is far too lengthy and much too complex for this to be realistic. China is out of options – welcome to the world of wicked problems.
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1289 words of this article.