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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
It’s a common refrain these days from analysts, academics and, increasingly, the President of the United States: China is not doing enough to push North Korea to denuclearize.
Huji Zhao, a retired Professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, agrees. Speaking to NK News, he argues that China could resolve the North Korean issue through a combination of pressure and incentives, providing Pyongyang with a guarantee of security and economic incentives to change.
An expert in the field of comparative politics and a former teacher of China’s ruling party elites, Zhao says the real place to start when understanding North Korea’s nuclear program is its internal politics and economic structures, and that the problem of the DPRK can’t be solved if only considered from the perspective of international relations.
The current Chinese policy toward the North, he says, is “insufficient”, and Beijing’s desire to maintain the status quo explains why China “can’t exert great influence on the North”, in spite of a multiple nuclear and missiles tests conducted by the DPRK.
“[China] could have a stranglehold on [Pyongyang] if it severs all the oil pipeline and official exchanges, but [China thinks] the [North Korean] regime shouldn’t be collapsed,” Zhao tells NK News.
Coming from an expert affiliated with China’s ruling party and government, which continues to be a lifeline to the North Korean leadership and to send North Korean defectors in China back home, the view is far away from that of the PRC government. A foreign ministry spokesperson insisted just last week that Beijing did not “hold the key” to stopping North Korea’s nuclear program, and that the issue was one that was primarily the U.S.’s responsibility to fix.
Current Chinese policy on North Korea is composed of three principles: denuclearization and stabilization on the Korean Peninsula, and solving the issue through peaceful diplomatic means, and Zhao doesn’t think it is working.
“It does nothing but maintain the status quo,” he says. “We should provide three different policies at the same time: stick (pressure), aid to improve the national economy (carrot), and the guarantee of the safety.”
MILITARY DRILLS BY BEIJING, PYONGYANG
Zhao is also a believer in examining North Korean ideology as an indicator of Pyongyang’s motives, saying that the Songun (military first) policy means that the DPRK would “never succumb”, at least voluntary, to pressure from the international community to disarm.
“[Pyongyang thinks] those who disagree with the U.S. can’t survive in the world,” he says. “And that [a country] without power doesn’t have any option but to die.”
The logic is “almost the same” as China’s during the Cold War era, he says, before Beijing established diplomatic ties with the U.S.
“While weapons which can launch a preemptive strike are mobilized… we can’t tell North Korea to stop”
But while Zhao is critical of current Chinese policy, he is also skeptical about whether the U.S. really wants to resolve the North Korean issues, arguing it “manipulates the North to contain China” and should join Beijing in offering a “security guarantee” to Pyongyang.
China, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have three options, Zhao argues. The “best option” is that South Korea and the U.S. reduce the frequency of their annual joint military drills.
“While weapons which can launch a preemptive strike are mobilized [by the U.S. and the ROK], we can’t tell North Korea to stop,” Zhao said.
If this doesn’t happen, Beijing could “stage joint military drills with Pyongyang on equal terms” with the U.S. – ROK military drills to “ensure the safety” of the North.
The last resort would see China “guarantee security in case of contingency”: tell Pyongyang that Beijing would step in to keep the regime in power.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
The professor also says China should provide economic incentives to the North, especially given Kim Jong Un’s emphasis on economic development.
“Kim Jong Il said bullets were more important than food,” Zhao says. “Kim has overturned his father’s saying.”
North Korea has set this policy in stone in the form of the Byungjin line, which commits the state to the simultaneous development of the economy and the nuclear program.
Comparing ongoing economic reforms in the “much more open” North Korean market to Chinese reform under Deng Xiaoping, Zhao says North Korea should participate in Beijing’s regional infrastructure projects.
“I am saying that we can help the North achieve economic development by connecting it to the One Belt and One Road initiative,” he says.
Zhao believes China should consider three factors that have “considerable potential to change” North Korea.
“The fact that he is young means he doesn’t yet have a firm political ideology,” he says, arguing that the frequent replacement of ministers shows the leader is still trying to find his feet.
Secondly, Kim Jong Un has “more leeway” compared to his father, who long stood in Kim Il Sung’s shadows, and, therefore, the “ruling environment is different.”
“We can help the North achieve economic development by connecting it to the One Belt and One Road initiative”
Thirdly, he believes the current North Korean leader is more relaxed about his public image, citing the leader’s frequent appearances with his wife, changes in dress, and Dennis Rodman’s visit to Pyongyang as proof.
So what motivates China to continue to support Kim? Zhao doesn’t believe that Beijing protects Pyongyang due to a “blood alliance” or any kind of ideological sympathy.
“The majority of Chinese scholars believe that we must protect the North and recognize the strategic value of Pyongyang, as the country’s collapse would mean that South Korea is likely to absorb North Korea and the U.S. could approach the Tumen and Yalu (Amnok) River.”
North Korean leaders know this and, as a result, “continue to have their own way.”
North Korea’s economic, political and foreign policy hampers its survival, Zhao believes, and “reform without openness is meaningless.”
“They carried out the reforms but couldn’t open a country,” he says.
Through reform, he argues, business and individual are freer to pursue their own interests, but the country’s closed-off nature means no one wants to invest in the North Korea market or transfer technology and know-how – an isolation that benefits the ruling elite, at least for now.
“Production elements can be transferred under stable circumstances,” he says. “But Songun policy and the development of nuclear power have legitimacy only when an external threat exists.”
Due to this friction between reform and survival, Zhao says, North Korea is in a “vicious circle”, and despite his call for Beijing to help Pyongyang develop its economy, he doesn’t see a rosy future for the DPRK’s rulers.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Kremlin.ru