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Why China is afraid of North Korea

March 3, 2013, at 8:25 PM
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un claps after inspecting the army's artillery firing drill on Feb. 26.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un claps after inspecting the army's artillery firing drill on Feb. 26. Photo: REUTERS/KCNA

To the outside world, there are things about North Korea even more confusing than Dennis Rodman's sudden renaissance as a diplomat. One is why China bothers to care so much about North Korea, to be its patron and protector, its representative to the outside world. 

Max Fisher of The Washington Post has a pithy summary: "No war, no instability, no nukes." Six words, three reasons, each worth unpacking a little. 

Obviously, China does not want North Korea to go to war with South Korea, or with any other country in the region. The reasons are as self-evident as they would be if Canada were to declare war on Mexico. On a more subtle level, though, China's status as a world power diminishes significantly if North Korea becomes an independent belligerent. There is also an inverse correlation between North Korean belligerency and Japanese nationalism, another malignant force for China.

No instability: On the one hand, this means that a war or other catastrophe in North Korea would result in a flood of refugees into China, inter-group conflict, significant dislocation and serve as a catalyst for destabilizing social movements in China. China thus supplies North Korea with food and oil. The oil goes to the North Korean military, which is the largest employer in the country. 

No nukes: China is most critical of North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Since China does not control North Korea, having an uncontrolled nuclear-armed neighbor is tantamount to a declaration of independence. Keeping North Korea non-nuclear keeps North Korea in a position of subservience. It must rely on China to broker relations with the rest of the world. If North Korea successfully becomes a nuclear power — meaning that it can reliably produce weapons and weapons systems — then the United States, counter-intuitively, could become the broker of North Korea's relations with the outside world.

This is not inconceivable.

China wants to protect North Korea so that the United States cannot easily or readily help re-unify the two Koreas, which would give the United States a much larger geopolitical footprint in China's sphere of influence. The seven-member politburo in China really does consider this a possibility, even though it sounds bizarre: North Korea rejected direct negotiations with the U.S. that would have started at the ministerial level. Kim Jong Un believes he ought to deal with President Obama directly, as Ambassador Rodman noted.

One question remains: How much influence does China actually have in North Korea? A puppetmaster Beijing is not. North Korea regularly ignores China's requests, hassles Chinese commercial ventures, hides its activities from Beijing, and shows no sign of following the prescription that Beijing has written for its neighbor, which mainly calls for more butter, and less guns. As a matter of policy, China seems to be patient because it has no other choice, and because it knows from its own normalization that change takes decades and often results from external shocks that are out of the control of any government.

What does North Korea want? Time. Independence. Respect. Better relations with South Korea. These China cannot give it. 

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