Why Does China Help North Korea?

There’s an interesting thought piece by Daniel Nidess at the Wall Street Journal considering why China has tolerated North Korea’s nuclear weapons development:

Two competing narratives have come to dominate the discussion. In the first, China has no fondness for Kim Jong Un’s regime and is aligned with the rest of the world in viewing it as a threat to peace and stability. But Beijing is constrained. It has less influence with Pyongyang than the world imagines and fears creating a humanitarian catastrophe on the Chinese border. In short, the Chinese share the world’s concerns and would love to do more, but their hands are tied.

In the competing narrative, China has no real interest in pressuring North Korea too forcefully, since it serves as a useful buffer between the Chinese border and U.S. troops in South Korea. Realpolitik dictates that, despite real concern over Pyongyang’s instability and unpredictability, a somewhat erratic ally is immeasurably better than staring at your enemies across the Yalu River.

Most of the commentary on China’s efforts falls somewhere on the spectrum between these two narratives. But there’s a third possibility—that China has been deliberately allowing tensions on the Korean Peninsula to escalate, if not outright stoking them. More than two decades of U.S.-led diplomacy, sanctions and threats have all failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and resulted in only one real casualty: American credibility. The inability of the world’s only superpower to entice, coerce or force a small, impoverished nation to fall into line has undoubtedly been observed by Asian countries weighing whether to align with American or Chinese spheres of influence.

First, an observation. China’s role in North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program is clearly a little more than passive observer. It’s practically impossible for North Korea to have obtained the materials it has needed for its development program without their passing through Chinese sovereign territory. Consequently, the alternatives really are that the Chinese authorities think that North Korea’s nuclear weapons development furthers China’s interests, the Chinese calculated, probably incorrectly, that North Korean nuclear weapons just aren’t that important, or that accepting North Korea’s development program was the best of a number of bad alternatives. I think it’s probably a combination.

Generally speaking, I think that you get better results explaining things on the basis of dumb luck than on the basis of genius. The genius theory supports the notion that it’s all a plot and, frankly, I don’t believe it. The dumb luck theory suggests that it’s all been a gigantic miscalculation or that China doesn’t really have a good alternative. Sounds about right to me.

4 comments… add one
  • Andy

    China is doing what many countries do with thorny problems – they take a risky gamble to avoid the choice with assured downsides despite the fact that the potential risks in the gamble are greater.

  • Guarneri

    It’s December. So this is my vote for blogpost of the year, because it’s the issue of the year. Most seem to agree that all roads in the NK issue lead through China, so understand their motivations and you have something useful.

    The notion that China’s hands are tied is absurd on its face. In addition, I see no calculus that suggests that China benefits if the US incinerates NK, or somehow engages in a less draconian conventional action. Yet NKs pursuit of nuclear weapons capable of hitting US targets will inevitably lead to one of those. I can only assume that China miscalculated that Trump was as weak as Clinton, Bush and Obama.

    That leaves me with the conclusion of only one possible course of action: Trump must convince China that he really means it. Really. I mean really.

  • bob sykes

    A while ago, Russia and China issued a joint communique to the effect that the only acceptable resolution to the problem of Kim’s nuclear deterrent would be diplomatic. They will not tolerated a military solution. We should worry more about that than speculating on China’s motives.

    The recent flyover, while having impressive optics, highlighted a serious deficiency in American arms. The flyover was supposed to have two B1B’s, but only one was in condition to takeoff and fly to Korea. That led Gen. Keane (Ret.) on Fox to confirm that at any given time only 50% of our combat aircraft are available for duty. He also noted that the Air Force is short 2,000 pilots of all kinds, and that fighter pilots only get one-third the practice time needed to keep their combat skills.

    Our military is likely a Potemkin village or maybe the Russian fleet at Tsushima. It is desirable to rebuild what we once had, but our economy is too small; we have neither the tax revenues nor the industrial capacity that is needed. We cannot maintain our present military. At some point soon, we will have to scale back our overseas commitments or face a devastating military defeat.

  • mike shupp

    I don’t think the US is going to blow its lid and start throwing nuclear weapons all over North Korea, even under Donald Trump. I do think that North Korea is quietly encouraged to keep on doing the same stuff, the US is going to moan and groan quite a bit, and that South Korea and Japan are going to moan and groan as well.

    If you’re Chinese, what part of this is Bad?

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