Will China move on North Korea?

“As close as lips and teeth” – but the historic relationship between the two is under strain

China’s President Xi has consolidated his power. His focus may now switch to the nuclear crisis.

How reliant is North Korea on China?

China is responsible for more than 80% of North Korea’s external trade. Most of its exports ($2.3bn of the $2.83bn total for 2015) go to China, although it also does business with India, Pakistan, Russia and Burkina Faso. Its largest export is coal, then textiles, and it also sells silver, wood products and processed fish internationally. Despite the latest sanctions, trade between China and North Korea grew by 3.7% in the first nine months of this year, although there have been reports of a slump recently.

How are relations between the two?

Not good. “The most derogatory expression I’ve ever heard President Xi Jinping use was his description of Kim Jong-un,” is how Max Baucus, the US’s former ambassador to China, put it to BBC Radio 4 in August. “He just does not like that man at all.” The Chinese leader’s contempt for Kim was probably only heightened when the North Korean despot conducted a nuclear test in September, triggering an earthquake that was detected in bordering Chinese regions.

The test overshadowed China’s preparations to host a summit of emerging economy leaders and was viewed as an insult. With the Communist Party Congress behind him and his domestic position supreme, there is speculation that Xi Jinping may now move to resolve the Korean peninsula’s simmering nuclear crisis once and for all.

Would that please the US?

Yes. Donald Trump has been pushing since his inauguration for China to use its economic leverage to bring Pyongyang to heel. Beijing has cooperated up to a point: it backed UN sanctions in September in response to recent nuclear tests and has imposed some trade and financial restrictions. Yet these measures are unlikely to threaten Kim’s regime and fall short of a full embargo. China has kept a crucial oil pipeline open and trade continues along the Yalu River border that divides the two countries.

Why is Beijing being cautious?

China’s leadership is reluctant to go too far in case Kim’s regime collapses, triggering a humanitarian and refugee crisis on China’s doorstep. Many in Beijing are also wary of the strategic costs of undermining a traditional ally, especially if it means it ends up sharing a border with a unified, pro-US Korea.

“If a North Korean nuclear capability puts pressure on the future of US alliances in Asia, then that’s a problem for the US, it’s not a problem for China,” as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told an audience in Stockholm earlier this year. And ideologically, some in the Communist party regard China and North Korea as fellow socialist states with the US as a common enemy.

So there won’t be a crackdown?

China’s leadership appears to be genuinely split on the issue, reports The Australian’s Rowan Callick. “A bitter online debate” has emerged, pitting pro-Kim “leftists” against those who view “North Korea’s nuclear programme as a threat to China’s security” because it increases the risk that South Korea and Japan will also seek nuclear weapons – not to mention the risk that the North’s tests could lead to nuclear fallout landing in China.

However, what’s “almost as interesting” as the debate itself is the fact that it “was allowed to emerge by the authorities” at all, says Callick. Beijing seems to be warning Pyongyang not to take its support for granted.

Why does China support the North?

Chinese and North Korean propaganda used to describe the two as being “as close as lips and teeth”. Mao’s China intervened on the North’s side during the Korean War (1950-1953), losing more than 100,000 soldiers to defend the regime against a UN force that included Britain. Yet during the Cold War, Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, used to play his Chinese allies off against the Soviets to extract concessions, and there are signs that little has changed.

Is China’s leverage overestimated?

Yes, argue many in the Chinese elite. “If China were to abandon all its economic links, North Korea would still not abandon nuclear weapons,” Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University, told The Atlantic in June. And Beijing’s own relations with Pyongyang seem to be at a low ebb.

A Chinese military source claimed in July that the People’s Liberation Army currently has “zero contact” with its North Korean counterpart. Others note that the
North Koreans feel they have a rational interest in pressing ahead with the weapons programme regardless: “Gaddafi gave up the bomb and lost his head. Saddam was toppled because he did not have it,” as the BBC’s Stephen Evans puts it.

North Korea’s own state media declares that: “history proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression”. So China’s influence may be more limited than Trump thinks. Indeed, the president may need to look to another controversial power for help. “If you look at all the major players,” foreign-policy expert Suzanne DiMaggio tells the Associated Press, “the only one with a working relationship with Pyongyang is Moscow.”

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