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China: North Korea not so dependable

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COMMENTS

16 September 2009 15:11

Claudia He is a graduate student from Tsinghua University's School of International Relations in Beijing, specialising in security issues in North East Asia. She is an intern at the Lowy Institute.

Every member of the international community hopes China can use its close relations to somehow curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. While it is true that North Korea depends on China for much of its economic resources and aid, this dependency does not always translate into leverage over Pyongyang's policy. In fact, there is a growing feeling among Chinese public that North Korea may not in fact be a reliable ally.

After the second North Korea nuclear test, a joke spread widely among Chinese netizens. It goes like this: 

Pyongyang's Foreign Minister makes a call to his counterpart in Beijing.

Pyongyang: We are ready to launch another nuclear test.

Beijing: When?

Pyongyang: 4...3…2…1...BOOM!

It's true that China is often the first to know when Pyongyang makes major decisions, but the timing means that there is usually nothing China can do to influence these choices. The joke reflects a general feeling of helplessness in China over issues relating to North Korea.

In China, one of the most important arguments for continuing support for North Korea lies in the Sino-Korean friendship secured by blood and flesh sixty years ago, when China lost 300,000 men fighting for the independence of North Korea. Chinese could not let this sacrifice simply be wasted. North Korea, on the other hand, systematically overlooks China's place in its revolutionary textbooks while mythologising the role of the Kims in liberating North Korea from the evil grip of southern collaborators.

In North Korea's Museum of Revolution, where there are more than ninety chambers dedicated to the glorious life and struggle of their great leaders, only one displays the Chinese presence, and it is only for Chinese visitors. Ordinary Koreans don't even know China fought in the Korean War. The fact is, North Korea's dependence on China is very economical and practical, but not so much emotional.

In terms of trilateral relations among North Korea, China and America, if Pyongyang could talk to America directly, China's presence as a mediator and communication channel wouldn't be necessary. North Korea has long sought to develop its relationship with America — which is part of the reason the Six-Party Talks proved fruitless, since the US won't negotiate anything beyond nuclear issues.

The Chinese public is aware of this situation. After the release of the two American journalists, many Chinese feared Pyongyang was going to join in the US bloc in East Asia. Their paranoia was reflected in blog posts titled 'What if North Korea betrays China and embraces America?' or 'Is North Korea really China's ally?', and so on.

Losing North Korea to the US, however improbable it seems, could be devastating for China. North Korea could serve as an American stronghold along China's northeast border in time of peace, and an effective military diversion if, say, a war breaks out over Taiwan and America decides to get involved. China has leverage over North Korea, but Beijing cannot afford to push Pyongyang too hard. The reason is simple; a collapsed North Korea or a belligerent North Korea would damage China's core national interests.

China may already be starting to see North Korea's dependence on her as not so dependable after all. This perception is going to stop China from taking a harsher position over North Korea's nuclear program.

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