Despite the fact that, according to the Chinese media, China has no “serious leverage for influencing the situation on the [Korean] peninsula”, Beijing is attempting to shorten the leash, trying to make its nearest neighbour more obedient.
First of all, Beijing is the only party to hold influential leverage over the North. In particular, it is fully possible that Beijing could cause a collapse in the North simply by blocking the Sino-Korean border. Such political action, of course, remains an extreme measure, but the country long ago developed a wide range of responses to situations which might arise, including the possibility that, as a result of turmoil in the North, Chinese troops would be introduced into the country to prevent a humanitarian disaster and ensure control over nuclear facilities. Information about plans of this type has been circulating since 2006, and although China continually reiterates that these actions would be used solely in case of emergency, to be undertaken only with UN approval, Pyongyang may still perceive such plans as an intentional signal.
Moreover, similar actions by China are likely even if any US-South Korean move for regime change enters a “hot phase” and a large-scale armed conflict ensues in North Korean territory. In this case, China’s actions will be dictated not by the desire to get a piece of the pie, but by a situation in which it would prove necessary to take Chinese interests into account in all questions of the postwar future, which could even mean foregoing the erasure of North Korea from the world map.
In this context, it may prove worthwhile to analyse periodical reviews about the consultations between representatives of China and the United States on North Korean issues. China maintains the image of an inalienable negotiator on the topic of North Korea in these meetings, speaking as an interested party with a decisive vote.
However, there is a very important subtlety. China is ready to consult, to exchange views on its conception of the situation in North Korea and its prospects. China is indeed willing to discuss a hypothetical crisis in the North, but this kind of activity should not be equated with probing for conditions of surrendering North Korea.
North Korea’s enemies however are keen to consider these as such. In the West, the popular view is that North Korea exists only thanks to China, and as soon as Beijing rethinks providing support to Pyongyang, Kim’s regime will not last more than a year. Therefore, Beijing is being convinced that it is dealing with an unworthy and ungrateful partner, which should be abandoned. Thus, the Rand Corporation, in a document entitled “Preparing for the collapse of North Korea”, states that “in the coming months or years” the regime in North Korea may collapse, and China, the U.S. and South Korea should develop tactics for working together in the aftermath of this crisis. Moreover, according to the report, the United States and China should think seriously about how to avoid unnecessary clashes between American and Chinese troops.
On the whole, all is being done for a certain purpose – similar to the forged will of Kim Jong Il (published in the Japanese press), where he calls for mistrusting China and using the country to the maximum. Rumours such as the following could also be cited here: that North Korea destroyed the cemeteries of Chinese volunteers who fought in the Korean War, thereby completely “deleting” the Chinese aspect of its history; the “testimony of defectors” that women impregnated by Chinese men were imprisoned for having defiled the purity of the nation. Several trite stories are also worth mentioning. One points out that Chinese intelligence services prevented another attempt on the life of Kim Jong-nam, who (despite his own statements that he has long been out of the political scene) is sometimes rumoured to be part of a reform block, and at other times to be the head of a pro-Chinese group which will be made head of North Korea if Kim Jong-un completely falls from grace. Talk may even be heard indicating that Kim Jong Il hinted in 2009 that the results of certain six-party talks were not directed against the United States, but rather toward ridding themselves of Chinese influence, and that if the United States offered a helping hand North Korea could become the most reliable outpost against China.
A recent example of such misinformation is Vasiliy Golovin’s article in the Novaya Gazeta, which claimed that territory is being cleared and fortifications built in the border zone and that they are “hunting for Chinese dogs” across all of North Korea. A prominent democratic journalist and head of the Bureau of ITAR-TASS in Japan cites “sources in China” in this case, although neither the Chinese nor the South Korean press has confirmed such blatant nonsense.
Here, the story that “Chang Song-taek was “fed to dogs” should be added. Cheng Xiang, author of this Singaporean newspaper publication, had it diligently translated into English and sold around the world. He not only transformed a Hong Kong tabloid into a “Chinese government newspaper”, but also drew the profound conclusion that Beijing was, in this way, officially expressing its dissatisfaction with North Korea’s policy.
The enemy’s plan is simple and based on the “self-fulfilling prophecy” effect. First, it creates a background of China being dissatisfied with North Korea and ready to surrender it. Rumors are even being spread about a crisis in relations between China and North Korea. They believe that under this influence, North Korea could realistically come to the conclusion that they cannot rely on China. After this, North Korea could either try to maneuver between China and America (this option offers certain opportunities for penetrating the “Iron Curtain” with the aim of regime change), or finally decide that the country has only two allies – its nuclear and missile programs. The strengthening of North Korea’s nuclear missile power will certainly lead to further complications between Pyongyang and Beijing, and in turn encourage Chinese leaders to change their current position.
With this in mind, Chinese activities aimed at resuming – and possibly even at a potential re-formatting – of the six-party talks, must be taken into consideration. Since no one disputes that Beijing is the place where the talks will be held, China remains the main organizer of the event, as if showcasing its goodwill and desire to solve the problem for all involved in the conflict.
Crises on the peninsula have been accompanied by a concentration of Chinese troops along the border with North Korea. This took place in both October 2006 and April 2013. This mobilization of Chinese troops is designed to solve two problems. One of these problems is the strengthening of border security, if, as a result of military conflict, large numbers of refugees should leave for China. Furthermore, this may serve as a kind of signal to Pyongyang – that China will comply with its obligations to protect North Korea in case of hostilities. However, such movements occur far less frequently than they are reported to in the West, and representatives of China’s Ministry of Defense often deny reports in the Western press.
At the same time, China consistently points out that there is no military alliance between China and North Korea. North Korea has no contingent of Chinese troops, and China itself has no influence over North Korean armed forces.
The second lever of influence is China’s attempt to fully tie its neighbour’s economy to its own. China is integrating the North Korean economy into that of the northeastern region of China, and is cultivating a certain stratum of North Korean officials and businessmen, whose wealth and prosperity is linked to trade with China. In addition, if authorities try to limit Sino-Korean contact, it will have an impact not on ideology, but on their pocketbooks, which carries far greater weight.
It is no coincidence that Chinese currency is very often used in North Korean markets, with the supposition that it is more stable than the North Korean won. Indeed one reason for the 2009 monetary reform failure is considered to be attempts to prohibit circulation of the yuan.
As for remaining details – the full scale of economic penetration has been described above.
Thirdly, China is investing in the education of the North Korean elite – especially its younger generation, as the vast majority of its representatives are studying abroad, in China, and primarily in Shenyang. Naturally, this stratum of youth will be relatively pro-Chinese oriented, and their general knowledge base will enhance their competitiveness on the domestic market. Combined with economic cooperation, this fact will allow China to form North Korea’s ruling class into a potentially influential lobbying group, which will at minimum advocate for further development of cooperation and against discounting Beijing’s interests.
In this context, it may be worthwhile to keep in mind news that a group of senior officials from North Korea arrived at Nankai University (Tianjin) to attend a 15-day course on business and international trade. In addition, a delegation visited Shanghai and Suzhou in order to observe the market economy in action.
Pluralism in North Korean relations will undoubtedly grow in China in the near future, and we will encounter widely differing view points – from pro-Western to hegemonic. And although relations between the two countries will be dominated not by ideology, but by the pragmatic interests of Realpolitik, China’s weakening influence over North Korea is not worth the discussion. Moreover, China will methodically accumulate influence over North Korea, making every effort to ensure the level of stability required for the functioning of North Korea as a buffer state. At the same time, China, like Russia, will not condone Pyongyang’s attempts to ensure its political independence solely by use of the nuclear missile trump card and efforts for harmonious resolution of North Korea’s nuclear Program.
In the future, China will try to increase its influence over North Korea via the expansion of economic relations and the formation of pro-Chinese elite groups within the country. There is an understanding that IF the question of surrendering to someone is posed, China will be preferred over South Korea or the United States.
However, this does not exactly mean that North Korea would become Beijing’s pawn. As the deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Sergey Lusyanin, says, China may use North Korea against the United States as part of a “containment” policy, but it will have to make North Korea completely dependent on it, including its political and military life.
China intends to deal strictly with violators and provocateurs of stability, no matter from where these initiatives arise. Here we may recall the Russian initiative supported by China in December 2010 (when, in the author’s consideration, the situation came closer to a hot phase than in spring 2013), as well as China’s earnest attempts to hinder the use of Chinese-Koreans or of Chinese territory as a staging area for anti-North Korean activities by non-governmental/religious organizations in the Republic of Korea. In this sense, the recent arrest of a group of South Korean activists on Chinese territory and the resolution of this incident at the ministerial level of security is very telling.
Therefore, I wish to conclude with a saying by Foreign Minister Wang Yi: “The Korean Peninsula is right on China’s doorstep. Here is our ‘red line’: we will not let war or instability take place on the Korean peninsula.” At the same time, Wang called on North Korea and the United States to undertake a joint effort aimed toward eliminating all obstacles in the way of resuming multilateral talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear issue, and stressed that China insists on the complete de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. “We must push upward on the steep slope of nuclear weapon renunciation. Only de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula will provide long-term and genuine peace. How steep or long this slope may be is inconsequential. The most important thing is to work continuously without stopping.”
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.