After nearly a month of belligerent bluster from North Korea, China appears to have had enough, ending its silence about North Korea’s brinkmanship and suddenly roaring its disapproval of its ally’s reckless threats.
China’s exceptional tough talk does not necessarily mean that it intends to abandon North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime, but at the very least, it does suggest that a radical shift in China’s policy toward North Korea might no longer be unthinkable.
When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) exchanged telephone calls with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday, he expressed China’s rejection of rhetoric and action aimed at destabilizing the Northeast Asian region. Moreover, Wang made clear that China would not allow “troublemaking on China’s doorstep.”
The next day, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), speaking to an assembly of primarily Asian political and business leaders at the annual government-sponsored Boao Forum for Asia, declared that no country “should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.”
Xi did not mention any country by name, but his implicit condemnation of North Korea was clear to all.
Before these official rebukes, there had been much speculation about whether China would risk a fundamental change in its relations with North Korea, the socialist “little brother” that it continues to subsidize heavily. Following the rare display of open indignation by Xi and Wang, such speculation has now become stronger than ever.
Some ask what “value” Kim’s hermit kingdom provides that prevents China from acting decisively; others wonder to what extent Chinese leaders’ domestic concerns continue to inhibit their willingness to switch course on North Korea.
In fact, China’s leaders have agonized over North Korea’s recent provocations. They have been struggling to persuade the Kim regime to temper its volatility and accept a “grand bargain”: official recognition and normalization of relations with all of its neighbors, and with the US, in exchange for denuclearization. Indeed, this has led to considerable squabbling between the two countries in recent years.
China understands that North Korea’s intractability is rooted in its deep isolation from the world, mass deception of its people and Kim’s fear of losing control of a country that only his family has ruled. The country’s rulers have come to believe that they can gain attention and resources only through provocation.
For China, the Kim regime’s survival can be assured only if it follows China’s lead in reforming and opening up. However, faced with South Korea’s shining democracy and booming economy, the Chinese model is irrelevant to the North: Following it would mean acknowledging the South’s supremacy on the Korean Peninsula, and thus an instant loss of legitimacy.
Over the past two decades, North Korea’s leaders have sometimes experimented with minimal “reform,” only to retreat from it quickly. China patiently bore this pattern of intermittent brinkmanship and timid reform, largely owing to its belief that the risks posed by the Kim dynasty could be controlled as long as China did not cut off the regime’s lifeline of oil, food and other necessities. More important, China’s leaders believed that by shielding the North from US pressure, it was acting in the interest of its own national security.