Monday, April 1, 2013

What is North Korea to China?

"A well-known editor of an influential [mainland Chinese] Communist Party journal" has been silenced, at least temporarily, following his audacious suggestion in a Financial Times article that the PRC should abandon the DPRK — or, setting aside the acronyms, that mainland China should stop supporting North Korea.

The article prompted me to wonder yet again what endgame China sees for North Korea.

The conventional wisdom says that China props up North Korea for two reasons: it serves as a buffer against South Korea, which is allied with the United States; and the Chinese government fears the chaos that could be unleashed in China itself by a flood of North Korean refugees fleeing a failed nation-state that can no longer feed them.

If you look at the CIA Factbook's map of China and its environs, it seems at first glance absurd for China to worry so much about either Korea. While I doubt any of the other countries that immediately border China are in as shaky a condition as North Korea, both Russia and India share not only as long or longer a border with China, but also a history of uneasy relations. Not that North Korea has maintained a blissful partnership with China, either. The sole real basis for the two countries' alliance has been their mutual suspicion of the U.S.

China, though, is an actor on the world stage now, with the multitude of sometimes contradictory interests that implies. While maintaining a reliably Communist neighbor as a bulwark against a U.S.-backed capitalist regime hanging off China's east coast was probably a very good idea during the Cold War, that ideologically driven rationale doesn't make a lot of sense today. In terms of the primary battleground between China and the U.S. right now — economic hegemony — North Korea is a positive drag on China.

Yet while China might want North Korea to be less of a burden and distraction, it is curiously lacking in leverage over its neighbor. It provides billions of dollars of aid, yet cutting back on that aid is not in the cards because it would destabilize the North Korean government. Moreover, the situation is more dire these days than it was even ten years ago because North Korea's nuclear technologies and materials, released "into the wild", could become a threat to Chinese security. North Korea, not China, is the hostage-holder.

North Korea's stability depends on factors outside China's direct control, notably, how well — or badly — North Korea manages to produce food for itself, and how effectively Kim Jong-un is able to maintain his political control of the military. Missteps in either of those areas could leave the government flailing — and the country failing.

North Korea looks metastable to me, that is, it wouldn't take much to knock it off its axis and send it plummeting into chaos. Even keeping the status quo will require a lot of effort. China can probably continue its current level of support for a while, but to what end? We know why it doesn't want North Korea to implode, but what advantage does propping it up bring? North Korea is a festering sore and an embarrassment to China. Containing the infection and preventing it from getting much worse is all well and good, but what about curing it? Or to use a different analogy, China is keeping the North Korean plane airborne, but at some point it will return to earth. Does China see a glide-path to a soft landing, or is North Korea doomed to crash and burn?

There are precedents for simply waiting things out. The largely peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, for instance, was a lucky break (the more so because Gorbachev was at the helm; it could easily have been a Stalinesque megalomaniac instead). Cuba is slowly opening itself up and will likely renormalize relations with the U.S. after Fidel Castro dies. Both cases argue for allowing internal popular forces to work their will upon the government. However, you could instead argue that both cases uniquely depended on the inability of the Soviet Union to maintain itself and its client states. China's not going the way of the U.S.S.R. anytime soon, so the odds of internal popular forces changing North Korean policy are next to nil.

Letting North Korea survive has done little, save to give the country time to develop more effective ways of threatening others. If China doesn't see a way to rescue North Korea from its leaders' incompetence, corruption and megalomania, why not amputate the problem now, before the North Koreans make the inevitable chaos and misery even worse?

I get the distinct impression that the Chinese government, like the rest of us, is waiting for a miracle in North Korea. Maybe it's right; maybe the country does have a wise leader in waiting somewhere that will find that elusive glide-path to a soft landing that the rest of us can't envision. That sure as hell seems like the only way North Korea will have a happy ending.

No comments:

Post a Comment