As the next-door neighbour and only ally of North Korea, China holds the key to de-escalating tensions—disregarding its inner motivations is globally consequential.
Image Credit: Hannah-Mei Grisley
Why is it happening ?
Since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012, North Korea’s missile testing has become more frequent and advanced. Kim Jong-un fired more missiles than his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Sung-il, combined. North Korea stalled on threats to fire missiles into the waters near the US island of Guam. However, its recent missile tests—including over Japanese airspace—continue to worry the international community.
Regardless of UN sanctions on North Korean imports, North Korea perceives its nuclear program as non-negotiable and essential for its survival. What started as a tool to gain trade concessions, foreign aid, and a reduction of economic sanctions turned into a military tool linked to the regime’s survival.
Why does it matter?
The consequences are grave if North Korea starts to collapse under the sanctions or if the US loses patience and one country fires the first shot. The alternative is that China, as North Korea’s next-door neighbor and only ally, steps in to take responsibility and command. But its motivations and actions to defuse the situation are complex.
Xi Jinping, China’s president, is expected to be re-elected as Party General Secretary, in the upcoming 19th National Party Congress. In order to withstand political competition, Mr Xi needs allies in the Communist Party, particularly in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top leadership council. Hence, Mr Xi may remain reluctant to put measurable pressure on Pyongyang for fear of alienating party traditionalists who view North Korea as China’s historic ally.
China backed the latest and toughest UN sanctions, despite the risks of destabilising the North Korean economy and causing the country’s collapse. Beijing’s strategic calculus recognizes that the alternative—a full-scale war with thousands of refugees flooding into China and the possibility of a pro-US reunified Korea with troops stationed on China’s north-eastern border—is immensely worse than a frustrating and belligerent neighbor.
Continuing to advocate “calm and restraint”, China appears as the adult in the conversation, compared to North Korea going tit-for-tat against President Trump’s ad-libbed threats of “fire and fury”. China and Russia partly blame US military activity in the region for aggravating tensions and provoking the latest missile tests. China’s solution of “dialogue and negotiations” is a stark contrast to the current war of words. It may ensure that the rest of the world starts taking China seriously as a mediator or leader of the Asia-Pacific region and even of the world.
What can you do about it?
As China knows, it can be the solution to the ‘North Korean problem’. But its reluctance to exert more credible pressure on Pyongyang continues to buy North Korea the time necessary to further its nuclear weapons technology. Despite North Korea’s threats and provocations, it is believed their technology is not advanced enough to fire a long-range nuclear-tipped missile yet. Beijing should continue backing the UN sanctions in accordance with the international community, as North Korean provocations intensify.
Engaging with a diverse range of news sources on North Korea is important for millennials to understand the complexity of the problem that is sometimes over-simplified. Reading the English-language versions of Chinese newspapers and considering unbiased news sites such as Reuters will provide a clearer picture of the Chinese point of view on the matter.
Hannah-Mei Grisley briefs from Birmingham, UK. She is a candidate for a Bachelor of Arts in Modern Languages with Business Management at the University of Birmingham, and completed a year abroad studying Chinese language at Tsinghua University, Beijing. Connect with her via LinkedIn.