Yongusil 59: Like a Slow-Moving Aircraft Carrier: Victor Cha’s Outlook on China’s North Korea Foreign Policy

By | March 07, 2015 | No Comments

Victor Cha at the University of Chicago's Paulson Institute | Image: Sherri Ter Molen/Sino-NK

Victor Cha at the University of Chicago’s Paulson Institute | Image: Sherri Ter Molen/Sino-NK

In his 2012 book, The Impossible State, Dr. Victor Cha admits that he still “marvels” at how North Korea has managed to survive though the country makes poor economic decisions, diverts much of its wealth to the Kim family, and engages in “the most threatening behavior in East Asia.” Cha is also keenly aware that the stability of the DPRK is due, in no small part, to China’s, seemingly steadfast but not entirely unwavering, support. The question is: Why does China continue to align itself with North Korea? and Cha’s answers to this question formed the lion’s share of his February 24th presentation, “North Korea’s Future – And What It Means for China and America,” a lecture within The Paulson Institute China Series at the University of Chicago.

China’s support of North Korea, according to Cha, is not an enactment of camaraderie. Rather, China perpetuates its DPRK relationship for the following three reasons. First, China has not given up hope that the Kim administration will enact top down economic reforms following the Chinese model. Second, China has long had a policy of “equidistance” between the two Korean nations, believing that equidistance is the key to stability in the region. Third is military history. China has had border disputes with every other territory surrounding it, but it worked out a stable border with North Korea decades ago since an unstable Korea has, historically, been bad for China. Thus, though Cha contends that China detests North Korea and that North Korea does not harbor warm feelings toward China, he unearthed strong rationales for the continuing economic and diplomatic bilateral relationships.

Cha further connected China’s justifications to three policy-driven goals. China’s short-term goal is focused on tactics, trying to keep North Korea from doing anything that might destabilize the region such as conducting more missile tests while also trying to get the senior leadership to return to the negotiating table. In the medium-term, China is concerned with its own investments in the coal and mineral extracting industries in the northern provinces of the DPRK, and in the long-term, China reiterates one of its main reasons for staying at North Korea’s side in the first place. Its long-term hope is that North Korea will eventually adopt economic reforms. Cha maintained that these aims do not reflect changes in Chinese strategy, and he likened China to a slow-moving aircraft carrier since China, indeed, trudges slowly when crafting policy change in regards to North Korea. Cha did not indicate that the United States is on the verge of putting forth policy changes either, but he did assert that the Obama administration wants to have diplomatic contact with North Korea. It wants a foot hold–even a toe hold–but North Korea will not relent.

Cha does not believe he will be marveling at North Korea’s existence much longer. He posits that North Korea’s politics are becoming more rigid while, at the same time, its society is becoming more market-driven and hungry for information from the outside world, an unsustainable combination. But for economic reforms to occur, Cha argues that China must cut off financial support to the DPRK to force it into a quandary where it must “reform or die.” He further believes that the best-case scenario would be to replace the personality cult leadership with a military dictatorship because at least this would allow for economic change. He admitted, after all, “You’re not going to get democracy in North Korea.”

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