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DPRK - Relations with China - Kim Jong-il

The death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 contributed to strains in the relations between the DPRK and China. In fact, one of the proximate causes of the 1990s famine was the change in trade levels with China. After the DPRK’s bilateral trade with the Soviet Union dropped more than ten-fold from $2.56 billion 1990 to $1.4 million in 1994, the DPRK became dependent on China for assistance. However, the DPRK’s bilateral trade with China fell from US$900 million in 1993 to $550 million in 1995, while food exports fell by half between 1993 and 1994. The seasonal arrival of extreme rains in July and August 1995 compounded by soil erosion and river silting led to flooding that destroyed the harvest and contributed to the period of starvation that has been deemed the great famine and referred to as the “Arduous March” by the DPRK. Between 1996 and 1999, it is estimated that between 450,000 and 2 million people starved to death.

Since 2003, talks among six nations (North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States)—the so-called Six-Party Talks—have offered a forum that enabled China to play a larger diplomatic role on the Korean Peninsula. Hosting the talks in Beijing and taking on the self-proclaimed label of “honest broker,” China sought to score diplomatic points in the region and enhance its influence. In the end, however, the equation for Beijing remained a peculiar but compelling one. It seeks a nonnuclear North Korea as well as an economically reformed state, but China continues to provide energy and food assistance to the North even in the absence of progress on denuclearization or reform because of the potential costs of regime collapse.

China has the most influence on the DPRK, in so far as anyone could influence the North Koreans. Over 80 percent of foreign businesses in North Korea, however few in number, were Chinese, and China was the supplier for practically all of North Korea's import needs.

China, which is prevented from direct access to the Sea of Japan by the 18-km border between Russia and North Korea, has been rapidly extending its transportation infrastructure in eastern Manchuria with an eye toward developing the Tumen River and North Korea as a major export route.

Many ethnic Koreans in Yanbian still have family in North Korea; some ethnic Korean Chinese--like those now in their 70s--were even born in present-day North Korea. China-based relatives, at least in Yanbian, generally might offer monetary assistance only once or twice per year. Yanbian demographic trends may not be working in North Koreans' favor on this front. Because of generational change and the significant exodus of many young ethnic Koreans from borderland Jilin to other Chinese provinces or even South Korea seeking employment opportunities, younger generations of Chinese Koreans may eventually harbor more shallow emotional ties than earlier generations to DPRK-based family members.

Unofficial cross-border trade and/or smuggling, at times benignly neglected by the PRC, remains an external source easing North Korean food difficulties. Chinese officials in the borderlands overlook smuggling, in part because they are simply unable to control it. Paradoxically, despite its highly destabilizing impact (e.g., cross-border human smuggling, drug trafficking), smuggling of food and other items also helps reinforce stability on the North Korean side, a point not lost on the DPRK or PRC officials.

China has a dilemma with the DPRK because it can't take further actions against North Korea, nor can North Korea be allowed to further endanger Eastern Asia. The U.S. and other countries don't have many practical measures other than to deal with the DPRK rather 'coldly' and bringing China to the frontline of the issue. If China does not successfully persuade North Korea, it will show that China's influence in the region is limited. However, if China exerts excessive pressure, North Korea may fall apart. Some commented that North Korea's second nuclear test, after its so-called permanent abandonment of the Six Party Talks, proved China's diplomatic failure.

In 2009 the Chinese government agreed to ship 180,000 tons of grain to North Korea in exchange for North Korea's delaying or cancelling its April 5 missile launch. On April 5, the Chinese distributed the last grain shipment even as the missile launched. Most Chinesee government officials fall squarely into two camps, one side believing that the historical alliance and strategic value of the DPRK justified further support, the other feeling the DPRK's increasingly difficult and uncontrollable behavior was fast becoming liability to the Chinese government. Missile and nuclear tests were trust-breakers and embarrassments to the Chinese government, but tangible reality of diminishing returns on DPRK trade and investment played an even larger factor in this regard.

By 2009 the intellectual godfather of the Lee Myung-bak administration's DPRK policy, Professor Nam Joo-hong, concluded that in the event of a DPRK collapse China would not stand in the way of the ROK's efforts to unify the Korean Peninsula. Nam claimed senior PRC intelligence officials had told him that Chinese intervention in a second Korean conflict would not be in Beijing's long-term strategic interest. Beijing had concluded that Premier Wen Jiabao's Pyongyang visit failed to persuade the North to return to Six-Party Talks. Chinese foreign policy experts increasingly viewed the DPRK as a threat to China's security. Nam asserted that if a power vacuum were to arise in Pyongyang, fighting could erupt between DPRK military factions and the ROK army could be forced to intervene. The ROK aim would be to establish order and allow for a period of peaceful coexistence with a Seoul-friendly regime to foster better conditions for eventual unification.

In the event of instability in the DPRK, there would be numerous ways for China to influence events without necessarily engaging in military conflict with the United States.

Dr. Nam Joo-hong was a KCIA Deputy Director responsible for North Korea during the Kim Young-sam administration, a member of LMB's transition team and interim head of the ROK National Intelligence Service during the transition. During his lengthy tenure in the KCIA, Nam met with DPRK counterparts on many occasions and developed extensive contacts with Chinese officials. Nam's book, "There's No Unification," makes the case that unification is a critically important but even more daunting strategic national goal, and is central to the conservative ruling party's foreign policy canon. The book sought to dispel notions that unification would be anything but a long slog. Nam withdrew his nomination for Unification Minister in the wake of allegations of improper real estate speculation and media criticism that his hawkish views were not a good fit for the ministry charged with engaging the North.

There is a distinction between the ROKG tasks of establishing control of DPRK territory and actual unification, the former being an immediate imperative and the latter a long-term goal. German-style overnight unification would be "suicidal" for both halves of the Peninsula. The cultural divide between the two Germanys was miniscule, compared to the "high, thick wall" that exists between the Koreas.

In the case of a leadership vacuum in the DPRK, violent clashes could easily emerge between military factions that have roots going back as far as the Japanese occupation. Factional violence could constitute a worst-case "sudden change" scenario requiring ROK military intervention to maintain social order. Between the time of a first ROK incursion to restore order and a move toward unification, Seoul could seek an extended period of peaceful coexistence with a friendly DPRK regime.

Premier Wen Jiabao's October 4-6 Pyongyang visit failed. The Chinese lacked confidence that the North would agree to return to the Six-Party Talks and the question was still a subject of intense debate in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il had asked the Premier Wen for a "strategic aid package," including crude oil, rice, and coking coal, but was unwilling to make a clear commitment to return to the Six-Party Talks. The leadership in Beijing was "very unhappy with Pyongyang" and many official PRC voices were now openly critical of the regime, some suggesting that the North's nuclear capability could one day be directed against China. Many PRC security experts had concluded that not only was the DPRK no longer an ally, but now posed a real security threat right on China's doorstep.

Beijing had concluded that its strategic interests would not be served by engaging in armed conflict over the ultimate fate of North Korea. The Hu-Wen-Zeng leadership troika had decided that coming to North Korea's defense in a conflict with U.S.-ROK allied forces would in no way serve China's long-term interests. Why would China put at risk its long-term prospects for expanding economic and political relations with the ROK, the U.S. and Japan, Nam asked. Or to put it another way, he posited, "a buffer state at what cost?"

By 2009, the general impression of the Chinese public about North Korea had fallen to an extraordinary low. This showed that the positive image, built by North Korea among the Chinese people for the last few decades, had been harmed. This change will influence Sino-North Korean relations. Many Chinese people thought that North Korea was destroying the peace in Northeast Asia and worried that North Korea may drag China into a war. North Korea's nuclear move had absolutely disobeyed the China-North Korea relationship. If Chinese people were offended, the base of China-North Korea relations would be shaken and damaged. North Korea's strategic space would also shrink if China changes its North Korea policy.

The future direction of North Korea–China relations will be a critical indicator of the viability of the North Korean regime. If Beijing continues to view the costs of “muddling through” — a phrase coined by Marcus Noland, a noted economist, and now widely used — North Korea’s economic hardship as better than the costs of collapse, then the regime may be capable of subsisting in its current state. If, however, the status quo results in a nuclear North Korea, then the costs to Beijing of “muddling through” [in the form of nuclear arms in South Korea and Japan] may grow sufficiently high to warrant change of the regime itself.




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Page last modified: 24-06-2018 18:46:07 ZULU