The following essay was published at the China Policy Institute blog, University of Nottingham, on 28 July 2014 (link).
Around the world today, knowing how and when to deflect the will of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be something of a common theme. Beijing’s confidence is manifested at every turn: When one of its top leaders arrives in London, China seems to expect nothing less than audiences with the Queen, massive and obligatory profits, and silence about Tibet. Chinese state propaganda continues to promote a version of history that emphasizes victimization by the West, but by and large the country’s government now gets what it wants.
Why, then, when China looks at its impoverished neighbour North Korea, does the PRC seem so stymied, and even impotent?
Economic leverage has been a key tool in Beijing’s kit. But, just as the existence of large economic ties does not ipso facto prevent war from breaking out between China and Japan, the notion of strong economic ties between China and North Korea does not necessarily lead to outright Chinese influence – or China’s ability to use that leverage. The DPRK is surely dependent upon foreign trade with China, Chinese oil, and consumer goods, and North Korean businesses operating legally in China are a major contributor to the Pyongyang regime’s balance sheet.
Pyongyang’s ability to survive on very little, and the implicit threat of its collapse, make it almost impossible for China to shut off this flow. A shutting-off of cross-border trade would not simply represent a backtracking after years of slow growth, it would be a total contradiction in Beijing’s broader policy to open up frontier areas for transportation and trade. Such a policy would also lead to a great deal of illegal cross-border activity which the PRC is already rather annoyed at having to police.
Cultural influence, or ‘soft power’ has been another element of Beijing’s global strategy. There are equivalents of the ‘Confucius Institutes’ in Pyongyang, with an estimated 700 graduates per year. But North Korea keeps its small population of overseas Chinese under careful surveillance (Kim Jong-un finally allowed them to have landline telephones, an improvement) and at Chinese New Year’s parties in Pyongyang, foreigners outnumber North Koreans. Chinese students at elite universities in Pyongyang will occasionally swap USB sticks with North Korean friends, but the content absorbed is just as likely to be Japanese pornography as tracts about marketization.
Kim Il-song was mortally opposed to Chinese language education in the DPRK, telling his successors not to trust Chinese capitalists. There is no need to conjure up a ‘last testament of Kim Jong-il’ to argue that anti-Chinese sentiment is hard-wired into the ruling arts of the North Korean leadership.
Using military power in North Korea is hardly a hypothetical for the PRC, which undertook three draining years of total conventional war against the US and United Nations in Korea (1950-1953) and spent another five years of occupation and reconstruction of the DPRK (1953-1958). Mao’s gamble that intervening in the Korean War would not result in either a huge defeat or American nuclear attacks on Chinese soil paid off. But Chinese leaders today have very little stomach for another war to either destroy or save the DPRK; North Korea’s nuclear deterrent provides yet more reason to stay out.
North Korea’s unique historical position as a sovereign state that had been fully occupied by Chinese communist troops understandably makes the North Koreans touchy and prone to exaggerated claims of Kimist power and genius. It also makes the Chinese extremely halting when any suggestion is tendered that such a turn of events could again come to pass. Even the fatuous editors elevated as ‘public intellectuals’ in PRC state media have to recognize Beijing’s sense of ambivalence in this area.
If history helps to immobilize China’s freedom of action with North Korea, the communist giant’s relationships in the region also prevent it from making much progress. Outright hatred of Abe Shinzo means that there is next to no policy coordination between Japan and China on North Korea – very much to the benefit of Pyongyang. And every forward step taken to heighten the symbolism of China’s relationship with Seoul makes North Korea all the more recalcitrant and obdurate. When Xi Jinping went to the South Korean capital on 3 July, the DPRK media said he shared Park Geun-hye’s ‘dog’s dream of denuclearization’; less than three weeks later, the country’s top political and military organ, the National Defence Commission chaired by Kim Jong-un, called China ‘weak-willed…clinging to the malodorous coattails of the US.’
North Korea is no poster child for doing Beijing’s bidding. Assertions that North Korea is China’s “savage attack dog” make for exciting reading, but are completely off-base. It is North Korea’s refusal to heed China’s pressure and insistence that in so many ways makes the country noteworthy.