When US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) met for their “shirt-sleeves summit” in California last month, North Korea was a major topic of conversation. The subject was not new, but the tone had changed considerably.
More than two decades ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) caught North Korea violating its safeguards agreement and reprocessing plutonium.
After the North renounced the subsequent Agreed Framework, negotiated by former US president Bill Clinton’s administration in 2003, it expelled IAEA inspectors and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has since detonated three nuclear devices and conducted a variety of missile tests.
During those two decades, US and Chinese officials frequently discussed North Korea’s behavior, both privately and in public meetings. The Chinese consistently said that they did not want North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, but claimed that they had limited influence over the regime, despite being its major supplier of food and fuel.
The result was always a somewhat scripted exchange in which China and the US would accomplish little more than professing denuclearization as a goal they both shared.
China was sincere in expressing its desire for a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, but the nuclear issue was not its primary concern. It also sought to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime and the resulting potential for chaos on its border — not only flows of refugees, but also the possibility that South Korean or US troops could move into the North.
Torn between its two objectives, China placed a higher priority on preserving the Kim family dynasty. That choice gave rise to a seeming paradox: North Korea gained surprisingly powerful influence over China.
North Korea has “the power of weakness.” In certain bargaining situations, weakness and the threat of collapse can be a source of power.
To take an example from the financial world, if you owe a bank US$1,000, the bank has power over you; but if you owe the bank US$1 billion, you may have considerable bargaining power over the bank. China is, in this sense, North Korea’s over-exposed banker.
As a result, China has tried to persuade North Korea to follow its market-oriented example, but, with the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un terrified that economic liberalization would eventually provoke demands for greater political freedom, China’s influence over the regime is limited.
As a Chinese official once told me in an unguarded moment, “North Korea has hijacked our foreign policy.”
North Korea has amplified its power by playing its weak hand audaciously. The North’s leaders know that superior South Korean and US military forces would win a full-scale military conflict. And yet, with 15,000 artillery tubes in the Demilitarized Zone, just 48km north of Seoul, they also know that they could wreak havoc on South Korea’s economy, whereas the North has relatively less to lose.
North Korea has long been adept at flaunting its willingness to take risks, provoking a crisis in 2010 by sinking a South Korean naval vessel and shelling a South Korean island. This spring, it conducted a nuclear test and a series of missile tests, accompanied by a stream of bellicose rhetoric.
Now it appears that China is beginning to lose patience. It has less confidence in the North’s inexperienced new ruler, Kim Jong-un, than it had in his father, Kim Jong-il. Chinese leaders are also beginning to recognize the risks that North Korea is imposing on China.