Beijing’s German Shepherd? Why China Will Not Abandon North Korea
China’s support of new UN sanctions on North Korea would appear to strengthen the idea that Beijing is finally moving toward an “abandonment” of its traditional alliance with Pyongyang. Tough language by prominent Chinese academics, and a handful of unconfirmed reports from the Sino-Korean border region, would appear to support such an interpretation. But the long-term is everything in East Asia, and the debate about China’s relinquishment of its strategic gains in North Korea, and North Korea’s role for China in counterbalancing the US-ROK-Japan security triangle, is far from complete.
In an editorial that originally appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on March 14, 2013, Sabine van Ameijden argues that China has no intention of allowing North Korea out of its grasp. NRC Handelsblad is one of Holland’s major national newspapers, a liberal independent daily paper, with a focus on foreign affairs, politics, the economy, opinion and art. We thank the paper for generously allowing Sino-NK to carry the author’s English equivalent of this article. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor
Beijing’s German Shepherd? Why China Will Not Abandon North Korea
by Sabine van Ameijden
China is not abandoning North Korea. The North Korean leadership is neither a burden nor an embarrassment for Beijing, but remains a crucial ally. A closer look at the power relations and events on the Korean Peninsula reveals that the future of North Korea is quite predictable.
Rather than being a game changer for Beijing to finally end its alliance with Pyongyang, the third North Korean nuclear test has simply been another means to fulfil China’s deterrence policy in the Asia-Pacific. Instead of projecting power directly on each other, China and the US play a game of chess and the pieces on the board are North Korea, South Korea and Japan. The US forms strong alliances with South Korea and Japan in order to expand its influence in the region. Simultaneously, China has an increasing sense of encirclement and therefore greatly values North Korea as a buffer nation. When China feels threatened, it instructs Pyongyang to contain the American ambitions. This vision was initially brought to me by a Chinese source from Beijing.
Looking beyond the provocative show that North Korea is putting up, the timing of events illustrates who is directing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean 2012 satellite launch, the third nuclear test this year, and the threat of a fourth test are all correlated with China’s response to American endeavours in the Asia-Pacific.
While it is in the middle of a power transition, Beijing is especially annoyed that, instead of showing respect for the new government, the US and South Korea announced joint military drills on the Korean Peninsula. As a warning signal to the US, China unleashed the North Korean threat. Pyongyang annuled the inter-Korean Armistice Agreement, closed its DMZ hotline and threatened the US with a pre-emptive nuclear strike. If the US refuses back down to the extent that Beijing feels comfortable, a fourth North Korean nuclear test is right at China’s fingertips. More likely than risking another test, the US is expected to diffuse tensions and by the time the Chinese power transition has completed on March 17, the Six Parties will start their way back to the nuclear negotiation table. These negotiations, however, will not conclude in tangible steps towards denuclearising North Korea, but will rather be a continuation of the same show that makes these nations look good on the diplomatic stage.
This tit-for-tat power play is further illustrated by the events in 2010. On 26 March that year the ROKS Cheonan went down in the Yellow Sea. A South Korean led team of international experts concluded that a North Korean torpedo had hit the frigate. Ever since, this conclusion has been subject of debate and these charges have been vehemently denied by North Korea. China blames “friendly fire” instead, and claims that Beijing would never have allowed Pyongyang to commit such an act of aggression. The Cheonan incident did trigger a chain of violent rhetoric and retaliatory actions, including the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island eight months later. Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was nationally criticised for his restraint in response to the island shelling. The fact that North Korea was indeed wrongfully blamed for the sinking of the Cheonan, would be a plausible explanation for this stance.
Moreover, it is not credible that North Korea has developed its nuclear weapons programme without foreign assistance. Considering that China benefits from a North Korean nuclear bomb, it is likely that China has aided its neighbour to develop this capability. Should we be afraid that North Korea will ever push the button? No, because owning nuclear weapons is only effective towards deterrence. Actually using them against your enemy is suicide.
North Korea’s nuclear threat also helps China in its island disputes. When Japan, with the support of the US, presses for ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, China tells North Korea to test a nuclear bomb in order to deter Japan in this dispute. This also paralyses South Korea, because they need US support in the dispute with Japan over the claim of the Dokdo/Takeshima islands as well as in addressing the North Korean nuclear problem.
China’s strategic interests require the North Korean economy to significantly recover from its stagnation of the past decades by gradually adopting the Chinese economic reform model. The North Korean special economic zones along the Chinese border are intended to become the DPRK-version of Shenzhen. These zones are given a push by Chinese state-owned enterprises, mainly focused on financial and material investment and developing infrastructure.
In the aftermath of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, most analysis presumes that North Korea is making its own decisions, whether irrational or not. However, parsing the rivalry between China and the US and the timing of events in Korea, presents a pattern, which is logical in a world driven by power politics. In this world North Korea is of vital strategic importance to China. For this reason China will continue to stimulate economic development and to direct and control the military capabilities of North Korea. Time will tell whether North Korea is in fact not a rogue state, but, as coined by a Chinese source, the faithful German shepherd of Beijing, which barks when China wants it to bark.