Pyongyang used to be an asset for Beijing but it has now become a liability. Granted, many in the West, and for good reasons, like to label Kim Jong-Un as a madman and a joke. But, underestimating an opponent is the worst mistake a strategist can make (but that does not mean either that Kim would be the perfect person making accurate decisions).
Most recently, the North Korean hermit regime has been threatening to test the launching of an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) that would target the United States, and, as a result, the Pentagon is up in arms. However, for now, President Trump is keeping his head cool and has ordered U.S. troops to stay at bay.
But, what is China doing? As a reminder, Beijing was North Korea’s ally during the Korean War 0f 1950-1953 (for which all parties involved are technically still at war as only a cease-fire was signed and no peace agreement), and for the last 65 years has remained Pyongyang’s closest ally. While the Sino-Korean alliance was during the first 40 years mostly ideological (supplemented with foreign and diplomatic aid), the relationship has morphed into a socioeconomic one ever since the inception of China’s market liberalization under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s.
Indeed, China is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner covering nearly 90% of North Korea’s exports and imports. North Korean exports ($2.9bn in 2016) consist mainly of mining products (coal, limestone, iron ore, graphite, magnesite, zinc, copper, and other precious metals), military hardware (including nuclear know-how), food, textiles, and metallurgy. But, these exports do not cover imports ($3.2bn in 2016) causing a trade deficit for the country (even though the trade deficit has shrunk from $2bn in 2008 down to a third of a billion by end 2016).
There are two additional comments to make when analysing the North Korean economy:
One can not remain silent on the famine that killed close to 5% of North Koreans in the 1990s. As a response to these terrible food shortages, Pyongyang has tolerated the existence of a pseudo ‘private’ market system that allows people to sell their harvest as well as trade-in smuggled goods from China.
Additionally, the topic of economic sanctions must also be brought up: yes, U.N. economic sanctions were “efficient” till 2012, at a time when Pyongyang was almost on its knees begging for food. But, since, under the auspices of Kim Jong-Un, Pyongyang has stated that it was “utterly childish to assume that it would discontinue its nuclear weapons program for a few pennies”. For now, Beijing has been very reluctant to impose painful economic sanctions on North Korea because Xi Jinping’s team is concerned that these sanctions would destabilize the entire Korean peninsula.
Chinese Patience Running Out
Taking a helicopter perspective, Beijing continues to back North Korea as it relates to the U.N condemnation of the lack of human rights in the hermit kingdom. But, concomitantly, patience with the Chinese authorities is also running out. Beijing no longer wants to stay in the way of U.N. sanctions against North Korea as it relates to nuclear weapon testing.
China has even bolstered its military presence alongside the 1,402 km (880 miles) border with North Korea. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Beijing has created a specially dedicated border brigade and built a series of concrete blockhouses in the vicinity of the border to shield its troops from a potential North Korean NBC (Nuclear, Bacteriological, and Chemical) attack.
And, last but not least, Chinese military forces recently simulated in the border region an attack with battle tanks, helicopter gunships, artillery against a nuclear-armed enemy. As already mentioned, while North Korea and China are allies on paper, no one knows how Beijing would respond if either North Korea launches an attack against South Korea or U.S. troops positioned in the area, or if the United States launches a preemptive attack against the military nuclear facilities of North Korea.
So, what does China NOT want? One thing is for sure: Beijing does not want a second Korean War as it would be a nightmare for the Chinese leadership. Not only could a destructive war lead to a domino effect in the entire region (potentially involving Japan and Russia), it would also cause massive chaos with millions of North Koreans trying to cross the border into China to find safety in the Liaoning Province.
Additionally, in the event of a North Korean regime collapse and the intervention of U.S. troops, China does not want to have those American military forces (or even a U.S. listening post) alongside the Yalu River. Last but not least, Beijing does not want a (re)united Korea under the leadership of South Korea. Indeed, the leadership of China’s Communist Party has understood the takeaway lessons from the 1989-1991 period, when German reunification ultimately led to NATO’s borders being pushed some 1000 km further to the east and the Soviet Union disappearing into history’s dustbin.
But, what does Kim Jong-Un want? He intends to maintain the regime under the auspices of his family dynasty and stave off (real or fake) threats coming either from the domestic elite or the outside (U.S. + South Korea + Japan). Kim also seeks the lifting of the U.N. sanctions and recognition that North Korea is a nuclear state.
So, how can the situation be resolved? A couple of scenarios from ‘most likely to happen’ to ‘least likely’.
Scenario 1: Not Much Changes
Nothing significant is going on with the exception of the usual ‘huffing and puffing’ sanctions, and North Korea continues to build up its nuclear ballistic arsenal, thereby threatening the entire West Coast of the United States as well as the islands of Hawaii. For those who may have forgotten, for the past 65 years, every American administration has been confronted with nuclear weapon testing. Indeed, the objective of the various tenants of the White House has always been to prevent the Kim dynasty from possessing atomic weapons.
This objective was already a top priority before Pyongyang exploded its first atomic bomb (i.e. that was during the George W. Bush administration back in 2006 – and, during the Obama era, Pyongyang had four more nuclear devices detonated). Even before the detonation of North Korea’s first atomic bomb and ever since former president Richard Nixon held office, America has tried to reign in North Korea by imposing diplomatic & economic sanctions, conducting military drills (with South Korea and Japan), issuing threats, and looking for a willing ear with Beijing. So, after 65 years, did these actions bear any results?
Almost none, as 65 years after the end of the Korean War the North Korean regime remains still in place; the country has nuclear weapons; and the North Korean economy has been gradually growing in recent years, illustrated, for instance, by the various construction activities around the capital city Pyongyang (i.e. notwithstanding strong U.N. sanctions).
Scenario 2: China Closes Borders
Washington is adding pressure on China to hermetically close its borders with North Korea, thereby shutting off all trades between both countries and emptying the cash reserves of the regime. Already, ever since February 2017, China has imposed a coal embargo on North Korea, thereby halting all North Korean coal exports to China (i.e. coal is Pyongyang’s most important export product and thus a critical economic lifeline for the North Korean regime).
But, Beijing now seems to be telling Washington that it has done enough and it is up to the U.S. to (re)start direct discussions with the North Koreans. These direct negotiations could discuss a broad range of topics such as a freeze of economic sanctions, the dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program, and even the signature of a peace treaty and a normalization of diplomatic relations. This outcome would put Donald Trump on the list of Nobel Peace prize pretenders.
Scenario 3: Re-igniting US-DPRK Talks
Restarting discussions/ negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea with the aim of reducing the tension and look for ways to halt the nuclear weapon testing. However, the past is not always a mirror for the future as it was not Kim Jong-Un who was sitting at the negotiation table with the Americans in the past and his personality is different from his father and grandfather.
And, secondly, for Pyongyang, discussions around its nuclear weapon arsenal are a non-starter. Apparently, just as for Iranians (and any country which fields nuclear weapons), the possession of atomic military systems represents for North Koreans a deterrent. Indeed, theoretically speaking, a country with nuclear arms is less likely to be the object of an enemy attack.
This assumption comes from the fact that a nuclear defense allows a state not only to protect itself but mostly to retaliate even against another nuclear-armed country, i.e. the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction – MAD. And, thirdly, there is the issue of pride and ego in the balance – being the first to ask for such direct discussions could be interpreted as a sign of weakness (the North Koreans or the Americans).
Scenario 4: North Korean Middle-Class Revolt
The burgeoning North Korean middle class (with the help of some security and military units) opposes and tries to topple the regime. Indeed, as ‘private’ market conditions allow for a middle class to exist, this social class could in turn – when faced with the harsher realities brought by additional sanctions – rebel against its master.
However, practically, given the nature of the security apparatus in North Korea (including the existence of the In-min-ban system making every citizen virtually a spy – Source: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea), it is highly unlikely that this kind of regime change would succeed.
As a reminder, for any totalitarian regime, it is paramount to maintain a very tight and effective internal security given that the authorities cannot reliably count on popular legitimacy to maintain power. Accordingly, Kim Jong-Un has already sent a couple of messages to North Korea’s citizens through a number of purges and executions that keep everyone on edge for fear of being next on the menu.
Scenario 5: Chinese Intervention
China is intervening militarily and unitarily to take possession of the administration of the country (i.e. to put a puppet regime in place similar to what Japan did in Manchukuo in 1932). Or, Beijing could opt for an intervention with the help of the authorities in Russia, which also has a terrestrial border (of only 17 kilometres (11 miles)) with North Korea.
China has already positioned around 150,000 troops at its border with North Korea (Source: The Daily Mail), and its military drills even contemplate an open confrontation with the North Korean regime. But, would it go that far? If Beijing were to send soldiers into North Korea, it would not be with the objective of getting rid of the North Korean regime per se, nor to sponsor a peaceful reunification. Instead, it would be to avoid the fall-out of the Kim dynasty system in the face of domestic chaos and U.S. pressure. Kim Jong-Un may go, but Xi Jinping would make sure to maintain a regime that is favourable to China (but without Kim).
Scenario 6: UN Peacekeeping Forces
China is voting a U.N. resolution together with other U.N Security Council members for the establishment of a peacemaking force to neutralise North Korea (i.e. it is not the same as a peacekeeping force). Or, China is giving the green light to Washington to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea as it continues to build up its nuclear military forces. These two scenarios have the lowest likelihood to occur as it would mean that after this second Korean War (which would cause massive chaos on the peninsula and at the borders with China) U.S. troops would end up bordering China from the Northeast. Given Xi Jinping’s pearl string policy, it is highly unlikely that Beijing would allow such a scenario ever to take place.
As a conclusion, it would be anyone’s guess to know what would exactly happen. Why? For the simple reason that while Kim might not be a crazy person, he is far from predictable, as he is known to be hot-headed and temperamental. Ironically (if one could use that word), Kim’s impulsive acts could be compounded by Trump’s rash actions – making the whole issue even more unpredictable. One might hope that words will not lead to actions.