North Korea continues to be a terrible nightmare. It is a nightmare because it has the support of China. Otherwise, it would have imploded long ago.
Beijing’s support has several components, even though North Korea’s waywardness occasionally annoys it. However, China is stuck with it.
As one senior Chinese official reportedly said a while ago: “North Korea is our East Germany ... Do you remember what happened when East Germany collapsed? The Soviet Union fell.”
This is an important insight into the psyche of the Chinese leadership. There are two things that worry Beijing the most.
First, of course, is the fear of social instability and resultant collapse of the regime — a process of hollowing out from within. The speed with which the Soviet Union collapsed is a salutary lesson for China.
Second, and a related point, is the fear of internal democratic dissent and external encouragement of a democracy movement in China. China’s 11-year prison sentence of Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), the co-author of China’s Charter 08 for democracy (and now the winner of Nobel Peace Prize), is an example of such paranoia.
China also fears that any implosion of the North Korean regime and its unification with South Korea could bring the US too close to China’s borders under the US-South Korean military alliance, although there are some suggestions that Beijing might be amenable to assurances of a benign US presence on the Korean Peninsula to ensure a relatively peaceful political transition.
However, a paranoid regime in Beijing is unlikely to entertain such assurances. Having been unimpressed by joint US-South Korean military exercises, Beijing is now even more peeved over US-Japan military exercises.
According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu (姜瑜) the “brandishing of force cannot solve the issue.”
However, China’s recent bellicosity to assert its regional dominance, and North Korea’s belligerence, has created alarm among its neighbors, leading to the tightening of their military and political ties with the US.
For instance, not long ago, South Korea used to placate Pyongyang and cultivate China, despite its alliance with the US. However, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’as administration abandoned this policy in favor of strengthening ties with the US.
With such North Korean belligerence and the recent shelling of a South Korean island, Beijing still continues to counsel restraint and diplomatic efforts to calm the situation down. It is refusing to put pressure on Pyongyang to act responsibly.
Indeed, for the first time, South Korea has felt obliged to move toward some sort of a trilateral military nexus with the US and Japan by sending military observers to the Japan-US exercises.
China fears that a reunified democratic Korea might have a subversive effect on its political system. The demonstrative effect of the democratic political dispensation across the border might prove infectious for China.
It therefore makes sense when a Chinese senior official compared North Korea to East Germany, with the latter’s collapse contributing to the Soviet Union’s fall.
Be that as it may, any collapse of North Korea would pose immediate problems for China. There are two views on this in China’s academic community.
According to Zhu Feng (朱楓), a professor of international relations at Peking University, the collapse of the North Korean regime would leave China with no choice but to support South Korea-led reunification, because “if China dispatched troops across the Yalu River, what would be the result? They would outrage South Koreans, raise unbelievable concerns from Japan and US-China policy could change tremendously.”