The US continues to believe in the “Chinese solution” to the North Korean nuclear proliferation crisis. However, the deteriorating relationship between China and North Korea provides limited perspectives for this option.
By Adrien Morin
“China can fix this [North Korean] problem easily and quickly (…) I know one thing about your President, if he works on it hard, it will happen.” These were the words President Trump used to address a group of business leaders in Beijing during his trip to China in November 2017.
Ever since being a candidate to the presidential election, Donald Trump has put the North Korean proliferation issue at the top of his priorities regarding foreign policy. Prior to the election, he outlined two main strategies on that matter for the future: engaging in talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and putting pressure on China, which, according to him, could “solve that [North Korean] problem with one meeting or one phone call.” Trump’s fiery rhetoric toward Pyongyang overshadowed options for US-led diplomatic solutions, leaving the US administration with what it believes should be the “Chinese solution” to the North Korean crisis.
International sanctions as the weapon of choice
Proliferation-related sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) were introduced in 2006 after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test. Since then, the UNSC has agreed to eight more resolutions targeting the country. The UNSC sanctions have progressively been designed to include wider segments of the North Korean economy. Originally targeting Pyongyang’s imports of military-grade materials and technologies, these sanctions now seek to severely damage the country’s economy by embargoing its metal, agriculture and labor exports, while also blocking its oil imports. In addition to the UN sanctions, the European Union, the US, and neighboring countries such as Japan and South Korea have all implemented additional sanctions that go beyond UNSC resolutions.
No less than three resolutions were passed by the UNSC since Donald Trump took office, highlighting Washington’s proactive attitude since 2017, and international sanctions as its weapon of choice. However, for international sanctions to work, the US needs full cooperation from its international partners, starting with China, the biggest contributor to North Korea’s economy, and its only ally.
For years, China has been reluctant to impose harsh sanctions on North Korea, fearing that the complete destabilization of the Hermit Kingdom might lead to its further unpredictability and, more importantly, to a potential reunification of the Korean peninsula by the South. This scenario would bring US troops and weapon systems one step closer to the Chinese border. In addition, China is concerned about the potential influx of North Korean refugees if the country was to collapse. Beijing has largely contributed to watering down sanctions on Pyongyang and has been repeatedly accused of loosely implementing them. However, China’s gradual integration in the age of globalization (which Beijing now fully embraces), along with its disappointment towards Pyongyang’s attitude, has pushed its leaders, Xi Jinping in particular, to align with the international community on the sanctions regime. Although it is unlikely that China will fully comply in line with the spirit of the sanctions, (especially for Chinese companies operating at the North Korean border), this change in attitude nevertheless marks a significant policy shift for a country that has a longstanding tradition of siding against such international sanctions.
A more compliant and cooperative China surely brings new perspectives to the North Korean proliferation crisis, but thinking that sanctions (even if implemented in good faith) can solve the problem might be over-optimistic. To develop its military nuclear program, North Korea relies on a complex underground trade network. Chinese front-companies have been instrumental in providing North Korea with opportunities to raise and transfer funds, but individuals and corporations from other countries (including countries like Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, Greece, Japan among others) have also been caught in this process. Just like laws cannot fully eradicate crime, sanctions cannot fully take down all illicit trade routes to North Korea.
Moreover, the technological expertise acquired by North Korea to design nuclear weapons is unlikely to be from China, but more probably from one of the fathers of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan (and his eponym AQ Khan network which illegally traded nuclear material around the world), who was declared “a free citizen” by the Pakistani high court in 2009. Pakistan, the US ally in South Asia, continued to nurture an ambiguous security partnership with North Korea over the years.
China’s limited leverage over North Korea
China has the strongest economic leverage over Pyongyang, accounting for approximately 90% of North Korea’s total trade volume. However, assessing that China, given geopolitical realities, can translate its neighbor’s economic dependency into political benefits and thus “solve [the] problem with one meeting or one phone call,” is probably the sign of a lack of understanding of the North Korean regime and the bilateral relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing.
The Korean War (1950-1953) tied North Korea to Communist China, but there is not much left of Communism in 2017 China. While Pyongyang progressively sank into international isolationism, post-Maoist China implemented economic and social reforms, opened to the world, and became an essential actor on the international stage. The reality for Chinese president Xi Jinping today is that his North Korean ally has become more of a burden. Similarly, Kim Jong-un does not consider his Chinese counterpart a trustable ally anymore. The current North Korean leader has not even officially met with his Chinese counterpart yet.
The deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang is not a new phenomenon. Théo Clément, from Lyon’s Institute of East Asian Studies, explained in an article published in the magazine Diplomatie in November 2017, that, since the mid-90s and the downfall of the USSR, this bilateral relationship turned into a relationship of predation. Indeed, in 1992, China put an end to the barter trade system with its neighbor and started asking for currencies instead, contributing to the aggravation of North Korea’s bankruptcy and to the 1994 famine. Moreover, China has been increasingly exploiting the embargo on Pyongyang to import minerals and rare-earth metals (abundant in North Korea and essential to the Chinese electronics industry) at low prices. This situation gave birth to a complex bilateral relationship between the two Northeast Asian neighbors, where China is simultaneously the main contributor to North Korea’s economy and a beneficiary of the sanctions regime imposed on it. Kim Jong-un made his discontent with Beijing clear when he ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-taek (the main interlocutor with China for bilateral economic relations), allegedly because he sold “coal and other precious underground resources at random.”
Although nobody can precisely assess how much resources North Korea has storaged, China probably has the capacity to severely impact its neighbor’s economy and destabilize the Kim regime. However, the collapse of North Korea is not a realistic option for China which still needs the country as a buffer with a US-militarized South Korea. Therefore, even if Beijing is slowly implementing sanctions against Pyongyang, hoping for a change of attitude from Kim Jong-un, it will most likely continue to provide enough for its neighbor to stay afloat. We are thus at an impasse regarding China’s possibilities to leverage North Korea. If the two countries were maintaining good affinities, Beijing could perhaps reason Pyongyang but the current state of the bilateral relationship does not provide much hope for a situation change.
Over the years, North Korea became less and less of a bargaining chip for China on the international stage. While the US continues to hope for a “Chinese solution” to the problem, Xi Jinping has internalized his country’s loss of leverage over Pyongyang. What is hardly questionable is the North Korean regime’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons and operational delivery systems (ICBM). The 1994 famine did not drive the country away from his dream of a fully operational nuclear program and recent developments indicate that North Korea is in the final phase of this program. Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and founding publisher of Arms Control Wonk, considers that the North Korean journey to acquire nuclear weapons is already too advanced to be stopped. According to Lewis, Pyongyang’s primary goal is not to engage in a nuclear war but to ensure the survival of the regime by acquiring nuclear capabilities sufficient to deter the US from attempting a regime change in North Korea, on the model of what was done in countries like Iraq or Libya. Chinese experts also stress that the world, and the US in particular, should prepare for a nuclear North Korea, and work on strategies according to this scenario.
Until 2002, North Korea’s nuclear program was under partial supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but this monitoring completely disappeared with George W. Bush’s decision to place the Hermit Kingdom on the “Axis of Evil.” Fifteen years later, the North Korean nuclear threat is as real as ever. An important question to consider now is how can the world be kept safe with an isolated, noncompliant nuclear power? However, Donald Trump seems unwilling to address this scenario at the moment, prefering to point fingers at other countries and engage in infuriated exchanges with the North Korean leader.
Cover Picture: a ceremony to celebrate the Sino-North Korean friendship in 2010, in North Korea, © Roman Harak / flickr