Wise Words and Wishful Thinking on China’s Relationship with North Korea

The most recent wave of analysis emerging out of North Korea’s test of an apparent Intercontinental Ballistic Missile has once again brought minds back to focusing on China’s ability to pressure North Korea. From the US President to the Washington Post, opinion makers and analysts are keen to see China take the key role in getting North Korea to stop flouting UN Security Council resolutions.

Writing for the Post, Victor Cha and Jake Sullivan seem to be floating a few new ideas for the Trump administration to consider. With all due respect to the experience of the authors on this piece, it goes without saying that the leadership in Beijing would probably laugh at these ideas if they (the leaders, not the ideas) weren’t so circumspect.

One thing that is almost never done as part of these intellectual exercises involving “getting the Chinese to put a heavy move on North Korea” is to imagine a Chinese response, still less the referencing of a Chinese statement, pertaining to the matter at hand. Is China every bit as much of a blank slate for our febrile collective policy imagination as is North Korea? I think not. Would the Chinese leadership really curl up into a little ball if secondary sanctions were levied on more PRC banks? (Incidentally, does Anthony Rugierro ever get a media inquiry about North Korea policy that does not ultimately translate into “Tell me why these sanctions are so great, and also why they should lead to yet more sanctions on Chinese firms”?) Does the central government in Beijing have any intention of letting the Bank of Dandong go under, or in not providing new avenues for North Korean finance? I have a single bank branch data point on the penultimate question, and I think you know the answer to the others.

Mitch Lerner’s piece for the Post was far more realistic, in part because Lerner has grasped the nettle and recognises that the North Koreans more than partially ceded their security and policy autonomy to China since the 1950s, and they will probably never do so again.


Lerner argues as much without leaning on rumours about Kim Jong-il’s “Last Testament,” using Cold War documents instead. As a historian who tends toward interpretations where continuity reigns supreme, I am sympathetic to this argument and appreciated Lerner’s putting it together with such alacrity.


More wisdom arrived in Tokyo, in the person of Andray Abrahamian, who in the course of a Q and A on the North Korean economy, stated the following:

China also has, by far, the best information on what is going on in North Korean economy, better, I suspect, than the North Koreans have themselves. They have thousands of people running businesses — the huaqiao, or ethnic Chinese — who go back and forth all the time, they have consulates or offices in several cities in a way that no other country has, and they have a huge embassy in Pyongyang. So they really, really know what’s going on. I think that they will be able to smell a crisis far earlier than anyone else and will be able to take stops to make sure it doesn’t turn into a full-blown collapse.

Fabulous. I would also like to see more reminders from folks like Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein about the delicate balance between North Korea’s oil intake from China and the diesel needed for the grain planting and harvest the DPRK. There are occasional articles in Chinese state media tabloids about North Korean deaths by starvation which might suggest more attention to this interconnection is warranted, particularly given the fact that DPRK has recently reported itself on drought in a breadbasket region.

Finally, adroitly finding the middle ground between “wise words and wishful, muddled thinking,” I wrote a piece myself for CNN.


Although I think everyone with a frontal cortex believes that Donald Trump’s war against that particular media outlet is manufactured by the President for the purposes of having a single front upon which he can both claim victory and perpetual martyrdom, I should note that my draft as prepared for CNN took umbrage with the White House Deputy Press Secretary, and that this particular point, although factual, was edited out by CNN. Although nothing fuels web traffic like a personal beef, it appears that CNN wanted to stick to policy.

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