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Published on February 18th, 2013 | by Caitlin Devereux
Image © AP Photo/Ng Han Guan 2012


What does the future hold for North Korea and China?

In the wake of North Korea’s recent nuclear test, questions concerning China’s relationship with this secretive state continue to mount. For two decades now, Chinese energy subsidies and food donations have kept the communist dictatorship afloat. The imbalance is stark. While North Korea represents less than 1% of all trade for the world’s second largest economy, an estimated 70% of North Korean trade hangs on its ally to the north. And while any removal of support could toll a catastrophic collapse for Kim Jong Un’s party, the impact on Beijing would be minimal. In light of the recent nuclear controversies, then, one question continuously arises: why does China choose to prop up North Korea?  

The key to the relationship was, in years gone by, always fairly self-evident. For, in North Korea, China had an ally that shared its anti-western sentiments; a proxy for rattling the sabre with anti-western statements without fear of cutting trade links.   Support of North Korea also helped ward off American backed South Korea, thus undermining Western influence in the region.

In an economically liberalised and more pragmatic China though, these motivations have weakened. For one thing, it is no longer clear that a reunification of the peninsula under South Korean control would be a problem for China and would, in all probability, prove economically beneficial for China. Recent figures have done much to support this view, as while North Korean trade brought in a paltry $5.6billion, trade with South Korea amounted to $220 billion dollars. A more economically prosperous North Korea would mean more trade and more buyers for Chinese products.

However, it is not all about the economic gains. Whereas once vehement anti-western propaganda suited China’s political purposes, it is at odds with the modern Chinese state. After rapid industrialisation over the past 30 years and a move to more economically liberal policies, China now seeks to forge itself a more stable identity for the 21st century as a mature global player. An association with North Korea’s antiquated, corrupt communism and Soviet style propaganda hardly fits with this picture, as evidenced by China’s reference to North Korea as a ‘spoiled child’ in a 2010 wikileaks report.

Perhaps most pressingly, though, North Korea’s recent nuclear ambitions and erratic leadership are a recipe for diplomatic disaster. China has long stood alone in defending North Korea’s right to military autonomy, yet this is becoming increasingly costly. In the eyes of the international community, condoning North Korea’s rejection of the non-proliferation treaty is tantamount to an implicit transgression by China itself.

Anti-nuclear pressure is not only international, however. Reactions on social media and in national news showed Chinese citizens to be extremely concerned about the recent nuclear test, with one commentator aptly observing that the relationship was like ‘raising a mad dog to protect your house’.

If there are so many reasons why China should not back North Korea, then, why does it continue to do so?

The answer: out of fear that withdrawing support and imposing sanctions will make the situation worse. Sanctions only force a state to improve when its leaders are motivated by what they stand to lose. As evidenced by North Korea’s continual decision to spend a vast proportion of GDP on nuclear weapons in a country with the world’s highest infant malnutrition rate, they have little concern for the effects of economic sanctions on its people. A cut in aid would lead to starvation of the North Korean population before it had any effect on the government; the most likely consequence would be a mass influx of refugees into China. And even if protracted starvation facilitated domestic collapse, this potential risk of instability or even war looms large. China has not forgotten the heavy losses suffered during the Korean War, and another costly campaign would only detract from economic progress.

For now, then China is likely to maintain its current approach towards North Korea, offering diplomatic protection and funnelling relatively small amounts of aid, while drawing minor trade benefits, to prop up the country. However, giving modest economic aid, devoid of meaningful political support in the hope of pacifying North Korea misdiagnoses their motivations in the same manner as economic sanctions. This ‘mad dog’ doesn’t want to keep quiet; it will keep on making a noise until it succeeds or implodes. The continuation of this relationship – and the future of the North Korean state itself – will remain inherently unstable.

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About the Author

Caitlin Devereux

Caitlin graduated in 2012 with a BA in philosophy from Cambridge. She is currently living in Hong Kong, where she works as an English teacher in a secondary school. She is enjoying the new perspective on politics and life. Her main political interests are in public sector reform. Having spent her time at Cambridge working for the university access campaign, she is particularly interested in education policy. She has a strong belief that evidence based policy and long term thinking would solve many of the problems in British politics.

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