April 15, 2017


CHINA'S NORTH KOREA PROBLEM (Hannah Beech, February 23, 2017, The New Yorker)

China and North Korea were once so close that Mao, whose elder son died on Korean soil during the Korean War, likened the relationship to an anatomical embrace between "lips and teeth." Kim Jong-il, the current Supreme Leader's father, travelled to China seven times between 2000 and 2011, even when he was ailing and near death. By contrast, the younger Kim has not met China's President Xi Jinping since taking power. "Xi Jinping does not trust Kim Jong-un at all," Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University, in Beijing, told me. The aversion appears to be mutual, with Kim sharing his grandfather's suspicion of the giant neighbor that long relegated Korea to tributary-state status. "This is about Kim establishing his power and legitimacy," John Delury, an expert on North Korea at Yonsei University, in Seoul, said. "Kim is a young leader of a nationalist regime, and the onus is on him to avoid kissing Xi's ring, so he can prove that he's not a pawn of Beijing."

China does have significant leverage over North Korea, as it remains the D.P.R.K.'s economic lifeline, piping in the oil needed to keep the workers' paradise operational. Shutting off that spigot could be catastrophic, even for a regime that has proven more than willing to sacrifice millions of its citizens to continue the Kim dynastic rule. For China, the prospect of economic collapse in the North, and with it the fall of the Kim family, brings a potential security nightmare to its border: a unified Korea led by the South, which currently hosts tens of thousands of American soldiers.

"The Chinese are deeply frustrated and want to do something, but they get stuck when they look at the options," said Paul Haenle, the director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, in Beijing, and a former White House representative at the stalled six-party talks, which were aimed at curtailing North Korea's nuclear program. "If they put economic pressure on the North and it implodes, they lose the buffer zone and refugees flood in. If they apply political pressure, then China could become the enemy," at least in Kim Jong-un's eyes, "and then the missiles that were directed at the U.S. and its allies are suddenly pointed at them."

Posted by at April 15, 2017 8:08 AM