The view from Beijing: Understanding China’s position on North Korea

It remains to be seen whether China and its allies have the diplomatic power to compel the parties, including the United States, to the negotiating table.

Image credit: Global Panorama/Flickr

Chinese President Xi Jinping must have had a lot of sleepless nights over the last few months. Only recently, tensions flared up with nuclear armed neighbor India, a nation who the PRC (People’s Republic of China) clashed with over border issues several times during the second half of the 20th century. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extreme religious nationalism, coupled with India’s rapid growth, has to be causing some worry in Beijing.

The provocations on the part of both countries’ armies amid the Doklam border standoff are at least in part due to China’s continuing embrace of the country’s long time rival, Pakistan, making that country a key part of it’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. For its part, India’s leadership seems to have moved closer to the United States in recent years, a process that’s accelerated under Donald Trump, whose advisors may have looked to Modi’s rise as a model, at least as much as the European far right, for the populist, nativist part of his campaign platform.

Still, these two countries are tied together by their participation in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) trade group and seem to have put their differences aside at the group’s recent summit, with India’s Foreign Secretary taking a conciliatory tone, saying, “Both sides agreed that there should be better communication and co-operation so that such occurrences don’t happen again” after China agreed to put several militant organizations, already banned in neighboring Pakistan, on a list of terrorist groups.

Normally this would be a cause for celebration in Beijing, which gave up very little to mollify their sometime partners, sometime rivals in New Delhi. Unfortunately for Xi and the rest of the world, it seems we are doomed to live in interesting times, globally fulfilling an old Chinese curse, and the problems on the Indian sub-continent were quickly eclipsed by events on the Korean peninsula.

Out of the frying pan…

On China’s north eastern border is the most isolated country in the world, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK). The country claimed it had detonated a hydrogen bomb on Sunday, September 3rd, just as the BRICS summit was getting started in China’s Fujian province, putting a damper on the occasion.

This sixth, and by far largest, test by the DPRK, whether it’s technically a ‘hydrogen bomb’ or not, followed a series of missile tests that the country, known for its bluster, insist were successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs) launches with the potential to reach the continental United States. Even if Pyongyong’s claims turn out to be false, they have had the effect of making the threat of nuclear war more of a reality to North Americans than it has been since the height of the Cold War.

This on its own would be enough to cause alarm in China as well, which has an obvious interest in maintaining stability in its sometimes erratic neighbor (let alone alarm at the thought of dealing with the after effects of a possible nuclear strike across its border and not far from its capital). As multiple commentators outside of the mainstream press have made clear, the Chinese leadership fears that even a conventional war on the peninsula or the collapse of the Kim family dynasty will be an unprecedented catastrophe in other ways as well, leading, at the very least, to a huge influx of refugees across their border that could make the Syrian crisis look small in comparison.

As explained by Andrei Lankov a professor of Korean history at Seoul‘s Kookmin University, in an op-ed in the normally hawkish Washington Post after an earlier missile test, “Beijing would rather deal with consequences of a trade war with Washington than with those of a real war nearby – even though it is in no hurry to advertise this position.”

This is also a crucial time for President Xi’s political career, as he prepares for the 19th Communist Party Congress on October 18th. As independent reporter Tom Clifford wrote on Counterpunch after the BRICS summit, “Congresses occur every five years and this one marks the end of Xi’s first five year term in office… He has to show he adheres to core party ideology while balancing the needs of an ever-expanding economy with a growing global presence.”

The successes of his OBOR initiative and stable stewardship of the Chinese economy risk being overshadowed by North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship and the possibility of a trade war with the United States.

As an aside, while China’s repressive model of governance is problematic on more levels than can be counted, its success in economic terms is influencing many poorer countries, including the DPRK, to emulate parts of its model. Liberal democracy, already in retreat, is not being helped by never ending election cycles during which government seems to stop, cowardly bought and paid for legislators and increasingly acrimonious elections at all levels, phenomena visible not only in the United States’ republic but to some degree throughout other countries referred to most easily as “The West”.

One demand the United States and some of its allies seem ready to present to the Chinese leadership is that they cut off the oil supplies that almost exclusively power the DPRK. The problem with this, as reported by the New York Times, is that a cutoff will not effect the the DPRK’s military, which has hoarded supplies that could last as long as a year.

As often happens with sanctions, the most direct harm will be done to ordinary DPRK citizens, as Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute which studies these issues told the paper, North Korean civilians would be “forced to walk or not move at all,” and, “There will be less light in households due to less kerosene.”

Due to the secrecy prevalent in both China and the DPRK it’s hard to know how much leverage Beijing actually has over its recalcitrant neighbor. Professor Steve Tang of the SOAS China Institute based in London has said in regards to the current relationship, what we do know is that, “Kim Jong-un is not keen to be bullied by the Chinese to do anything in particular. Kim Jong-un has never met Xi Jinping… you don’t really have an effective direct channel at the top level.”

In fact, Kim Jong-un is believed to have never visited China itself, hardly the behavior of a close ally who relies on its powerful neighbor as one of his country’s few links to the outside world.

The U.N. Security Council farce

In a hastily convened open meeting early Monday morning in New York called jointly by France, the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Japan, we got a good look at how the five major powers on the security council and temporary members like the Ukraine, Egypt, Uruguay and Kazakhstan reacted to the crisis initiated by this latest test.

The essentially undemocratic nature of the Security Council itself, with five countries holding veto power aside, one interesting thing about the meeting was that countries allied with the United States, (except France and Senegal) all gave their presentations in English. China and Russia, who condemned the tests in no uncertain terms but took a slightly different approach in their presentation of the issues, reiterating their support for a negotiated settlement between the United States and DPRK, addressed the council in their own languages.

he ambassador from Bolivia, who also spoke in his own language, was the most sensible, making an impassioned plea for all parties to the conflict to seek a resolution to it, along with a nuanced argument against the use of sanctions, while calling on the international community to follow Latin America’s example and ban nuclear weapons altogether.

Many of the English (and French) speaking ambassadors seemed to be playing for the cameras. With most of those whose countries are furthest away from the region seeming to revel in belligerence while calling it diplomacy.

The American U.N. Ambassador, Nikki Haley, offered a speech that out did them all in terms of mixing thick headedness with a willingness to debase the English language, at one point saying with a certain Orwellian conviction, “He [Kim Jong-un] wants to be acknowledged as a nuclear power. But being a nuclear power is not about using those terrible weapons to threaten others. Nuclear powers understand their responsibilities, Kim Jong-un, shows no such understanding. His abusive use of missiles and nuclear threats show that he is begging for war.”

She closed the meeting by saying that the United States would provide a new resolution to the Security Council on Monday, September, 11th. It seems likely, judging by a draft resolution that was circulated the Wednesday after the latest test, that it will propose even tougher sanctions, a course of action that has failed thus far.

It may just be one person’s point of view, but it did appear that some countries had experienced diplomats with an understanding of international law, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, and a sincere interest in participating in traditional diplomacy to resolve the dangerous tensions on the Korean peninsula, while others were represented by obvious political appointees eying their future job prospects while speaking in the most politically expedient terms, even in a moment of crisis.

The main argument against further sanctions is that cutting off the DPRK’s remaining contacts with the outside world, mostly through the PRC, could have the effect of strengthening the government in Pyongyang.

After 70+ years of isolation many DPRK citizens must be curious about the outside world. This offers a Trojan Horse of sorts to slowly erode the power of Kim Jong-un, his inner circle and almost certainly whoever he chooses as his successor. The popular culture of South Korea and, to a lesser extent, those of China and the United States, have already begun to penetrate the DPRK, as flash drives and other storage technologies have been brought in, mostly from China, where more than 75,000 citizens of the DPRK live and work.

Also, despite the tensions, Chinese tourism to North Korea is still believed to be growing, although neither country has released recent figures. As reported by Reuters, the number traveling from the Dadong district on the border with the DPRK was almost 600,000 in the second half of 2016 alone. It may be counter productive over the longer term to try cut off these links through heavier sanctions.

This is not to excuse the actions of the government of the North Korea or its extreme authoritarianism; their tests in and of themselves are incredibly stupid, causing an earthquake well above 6.0 on the richter scale, one of the reasons no other nuclear power currently engages in them, at least as far as we know (although the American military, almost unreported on in the U.S. press, dropped an ”inert version” of  its largest nuclear bomb, the B6-12, ”over the Nevada desert in August, likely in the hopes of sending a message to Pyongyang). Ending these tests must be the first goal of any talks going forward, a position China has also taken time and again.

As I have written before, whether American policy makers and the Western press understand it or not, the interventions in Iraq and Libya had consequences in terms of the DPRK, proving to the country’s young leader that disarmament inevitably leads to regime change, the one thing the leadership in Pyongyang will never accept.

The North Korean people arguably live in the world’s largest cult and the lessons of its over riding philosophy, Juche (“self-reliance”), emphasize both the facts, in its depiction of the country’s tragic history since the beginning of the last century, and cartoonish legends about the Kim family. This philosophy, which appeals to nationalism in the form of the ‘Great Leaders’, supplanted authoritarian Soviet-style Marxist Leninism in the early years of the rule of Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather.

As writer Suki Kim, who taught at the Pyongyong University of Science and Technology and is one of the few North Americans with practical knowledge of the country, told The Intercept after the nuclear test, “This “mystery of North Korea” that people talk about all the time – people should be asking why Korea is divided and why there are American soldiers in South Korea. These questions are not being asked at all. Once you look at how this whole thing began, it makes some sense why North Korea uses this hatred of the United States as a tool to justify and uphold the Great Leader myth, Great Leader has always been the savior and the rescuer who was protecting them from the imperialist American attack.”

After decades of Kim family rule, there is almost no one left in the country who remembers any other kind of life. These innocents, along with millions of their South Korean cousins, shouldn’t be so easily sacrificed on the alter of a war that everyone, including the DPRK, says they don’t want. It remains to be seen whether China and its allies have the diplomatic power to compel the parties, including the United States, to the negotiating table.


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