How China Can Really Help on North Korea
None of this is likely to happen, however. Before the world congratulates China for its condemnation of the North’s latest nuclear test, it should remember Beijing’s complicity in helping Pyongyang achieve its nuclear dream. This complicity includes repeatedly watering down or ignoring UN sanctions, while also propping up the North Korean economy for decades (90 percent of North Korean trade is with China), either directly or by allowing numerous Chinese financial and other companies to trade with the North. Some reports indicate that China may have helped Pyongyang with its mobile launch technology, and Beijing’s firm opposition to the deployment of enhanced U.S. missile defense technology to South Korea has encouraged the North. If China gets plaudits for now being on board with tougher sanctions, it spent years helping ensure that there was no real cost to Pyongyang for its illicit activities.
Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has moved to make himself less politically dependent on Beijing. He dramatically executed his uncle, Jang Song Taek, soon after taking control. Jang was China’s main conduit into the Kim regime, and his execution revealed the limits of Beijing’s influence in North Korea. Numerous reports that Kim has refused all requests by Xi Jinping to visit China, also indicate the lack of trust between the two sides.
Yet despite such tensions, Beijing has failed to put real pressure on Kim, at least until very recently. But China’s call for more negotiations is best seen as a tactic to preserve the status quo, whereby endless negotiations absorb all of Washington’s energy while doing nothing to actually resolve the crisis. Kim and his father before him used all previous negotiations as a respite to push forward on the nuclear and missile programs, and there is no reason to think a new round of negotiations will have any different result.
For years, observers in Asia and the United States have claimed that China “holds the keys” to solving the North Korean crisis. If so, Beijing has once again shown its disinterest in doing so. More likely, it has less influence than the world thinks, and has as few ideas for dealing with Kim as do the Americans. Nonetheless, China could help in controlling North Korea if it decided to work with an equally realistic United States to contain and deter Pyongyang. There is little reason to believe it will do so.
Michael Auslin is the Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The End of the Asian Century (Yale).