Exploiting China’s Growing Frustration with North Korea

South Korean officials insist that China now agrees that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a serious security threat to the region.  If that interpretation is accurate, it is a strong indicator that Beijing’s patience with its troublesome ally is wearing very thin.  But as I point out in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, the United States and its East Asian allies have a long-standing tendency to overestimate China’s willingness, even its ability, to restrain Pyongyang without incurring excessive risks to its own national interests.

Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea plans to conduct yet another nuclear test.  China is apparently trying to dissuade its volatile ally from taking such a provocative step.  According to Reuters, Beijing has used various “diplomatic channels” to convey its wishes to Kim Jong-un’s regime.  But China adopted a similar stance with regard to Pyongyang’s last nuclear test, as well as the test of a long-range ballistic missile.  Unfortunately, Beijing’s latest expression of opposition is not likely to fare better than previous efforts. Both Kim and his father, Kim Jong-il, defied China’s wishes and conducted such tests.  If that weren’t enough, North Korea also attacked the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelled a South Korean island.  Although Beijing was clearly unhappy about such incidents, it did not prevent Pyongyang’s dangerous, destabilizing conduct.

Because China provides North Korea with a majority of its food and energy supplies, Pyongyang would seem to be highly vulnerable to pressure from Beijing.  But a decision by China to employ maximum economic power to impose its will on the North Korean regime would also require a willingness to incur grave risks. Bringing such pressure to bear could cause the North Korean state to unravel. Not only would that development produce a massive refugee crisis (and possibly a civil war) on China’s border, but North Korea’s demise would obliterate a crucial geographic buffer between the Chinese homeland and the U.S. sphere of influence throughout the rest of Northeast Asia.  Few Chinese leaders want to risk that outcome.

If Washington and its East Asian allies want Beijing to become more assertive in leashing Pyongyang, they need to create far more appealing incentives. Perhaps the most important one would be to eliminate China’s worry that the fall of North Korea would lead to a U.S. alliance with a united Korea and the establishment of U.S. air and naval bases on the northern portion of the Peninsula. 

Offering the necessary reassurances would require a drastic change in U.S. policy, most notably abolishing the “mutual” defense treaty with Seoul.  If North Korea collapsed (or even if the hard-line communist regime was replaced by a non-aggressive, reform government) the ostensible rationale for the treaty would also disappear.  Retaining the alliance would then make Beijing extremely suspicious that the real purpose was to contain China.  Understandably, Beijing would not want to take action against Pyongyang, if that were the ultimate outcome.

Washington should instead make Chinese leaders an offer that might prove very tempting, given Beijing’s noticeably increased annoyance with the North Korean government. The Obama administration should prod China to use its considerable economic leverage to bring Pyongyang to heel, and offer an explicit assurance that if a significantly less threatening environment develops on the peninsula, Washington will phase-out its alliance with Seoul.  As an added incentive, U.S. officials should make it clear that under no circumstances would the United States station forces in the northern portion of a united Korea. 

Such an agreement might well be enough to soothe China’s worries about U.S. intentions and get Chinese leaders to take a firmer stance against the dangerous behavior of its client, despite the underlying risk that applying serious pressure might destabilize that client.  Since current U.S. policy clearly is not working, we have little to lose by making such an innovative offer to Beijing.