Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two female assassins walk into a Malaysian airport and commit fratricide on behalf of the so ascribed Hermit King. Yes, I know, we shouldn’t joke about the North Korean Kim regime. It’s as serious a matter as any when nuclear war is involved. In the United States policy makers have been grappling with how to handle the situation since the initial nuclear test in 2006, with the usual modus operandi being to pay the regime off with food aid and pass the problem down to the next guy. As the Kim regime continues to consolidate its power through both this latest assassination and the testing of a Pukkuksong-2 intermediate range missile on February 10th, the question of what to do has once again come to the forefront of American foreign policy. With the apparent failure of the Obama administrations Strategic Patience doctrine attitudes in the United States have shifted. Now more than ever the call for the China to do more in containing their atomic neighbors to the East through sanctions can be heard coming from Washington, with little regard to the challenges facing the Chinese in doing so. It can be so very easy to pass one’s problems along to another without truly understanding the rock nor hard place you are placing them between.
Up until recently the Chinese have resisted the call, but due in part to these recent developments and the reaffirmation of the One China Policy by President Trump, Beijing has opted to enact U.N backed sanctions on North Korea’s coal industry for the next year. Sanctions are the proverbial stick, a powerful economic tool in the arsenal of policy makers to curb unwanted actions by states, but the line between success and failure is very thin. Infectiveness in these programs is bred through a lack of will by the international community to commit to enforcement, and a haphazard targeting approach allowing space for the target to maneuver around the intent. In defying logic, overly effective sanctions are also not helpful. By applying too much pressure through heavy, blanketed sanctions on a country you can often impose high costs to the average citizen, and back said government into a corner. The latter is what led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when U.S pushed too hard with an oil embargo on the Empire of Japan. While North Korea’s current nuclear capabilities cannot reach the United States, China and our Asian allies sit merely a stone throws away from Pyongyang. By no means am I saying that China is in the cross hairs of North Korea’s nuclear arms, but proximity is as important to Chinese-North Korea relations as it is to your choice of pharmacy, or perhaps even friends.
One factor contributing to China’s reluctance on taking a stronger position on North Korea is the treaty obligations between the two. Since 1961 with the signing of the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty China has been bound to the principles of “mutual respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.” The basis for this relationship came from both ideological solidarity, as well as the position it afforded in staving off the U.S and its allies in the region. One leading theory is that China is still dependent on North Korea because it creates this so called “buffer zone between it and democracy, capitalism, and US forces”, for example the 29,300 U.S troops stationed in South Korea, and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile deterrent system stationed there. The collapse of the North, and subsequent formation of unified Korea backed by the United States may not be in the best interest for China as these perceived threats encroach closer to its boarder.In any event, whatever the reasoning be it ideological or strategic, the fact cannot be denied that the role played by China in the North Korean economy goes a long way in maintaining the DPRK.
Currently, the dynamic of the North Korean relationship with China can been described as being based on mutual necessity and dependence rather than mutual benefit, with 70% of its trade volume in 2014 ($6.86 Billion), 90 percent of its oil, 80 percent of its consumer products, and 45 percent of its food through trade and aid with the Chinese. Policy experts such Admiral-Mike Mullen along with the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson see this fact as granting China high levels of influence over the Kim Regime and its actions, which it does, but it also places China in a predicament. In implementing these new sanctions, the U.N goal will be to limit North Korea’s coal sales 7.5 million tons a year, a scary figure as China alone imported 22.2 million metric tons in 2014 from the state. In following the recommendations of the international community by imposing these new sanctions on North Korea the Chinese risk kicking out the proverbial pedestal and destabilizing the whole country, and as anyone who has ever had a truly unruly neighbor knows, sometimes their problems become yours.
It is pivotal that the U.S recognize Chinese concerns and reservations behind increasing sanctions in this context. Let us take out for a moment the nuclear component from the question and envision what the collapse of North Korea would mean for China. Liaoning province has the largest border with the DPRK.In its city Dan dong, it is suspected that over 200,000 persons fleeing North Korea have already crossed at that point. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “the specter of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China is a huge worry for Beijing,” who already is having issues dealing with those who have arrived, much less the thousands more who will come with an increase of sanctions on the state. The lack of infrastructure to deal with the displaced would place a large amount of economic and social strain on the border region, leading possibly to domestic unrest. The sheer amount of displaced would also invite the scrutiny of the international community, NGO’s, and human rights organizations who have taken issue with Beijing’s treatment of fleeing North Koreans in the past.
As time progresses it becomes clear that the United States will continue to persist in its claim that China must do more to help contain North Korea, and that leaders in Beijing will take measures to appease them to a degree. Unwillingness by the Chinese to place greater sanctions on the DPRK is not merely based on its position as a strategic hold point for the U.S backed South Korea, but more seriously for the ramifications a destabilized North Korea would have on them domestically. In so being, it truly is not in China’s best interest to pull the economic leg out from under the Kim regime and risk the cup of its neighbors flowing over unto it. While it is so very easy to place the responsibility onto others, the United States must see the position China in as it works to comply both with the requests of the international community on one hand, and its domestic concerns on the other. Sometimes it seems things just boil down to location.
Daniel Grober is one of the Spring 2017 interns at the Carter Center’s China Program. All view’s expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Carter Center, it’s China Program, or President Carter himself. You can follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Grober.