Thu, Oct 26, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Chinese power over North Korea? It is more myth than reality

Despite their long relationship, Beijing is becoming increasingly disgruntled by Pyongyang’s behavior, which is evident in China’s willingness to impose tougher sanctions, suspending imports of coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles from the North

By Foster Klug  /  AP, BEIJING

Illustration: Mountain people

At first glance, it seems the perfect solution to the world’s most dangerous standoff: Find a way to get China to use its enormous influence to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear bombs.

The countries, after all, share a long, porous border, several millennia of history and deep ideological roots. Tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of Chinese soldiers, including Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) son, died to save North Korea from obliteration during the Korean War, and China is essentially Pyongyang’s economic lifeline, responsible for most of its trade and oil.

The notion of Chinese power over the North — that the countries are as “close as lips and teeth,” according to a cliche recorded in the third century — is so tantalizing that US President Donald Trump has spent a good part of his young presidency playing it up.

However, the reality is that the complicated, often exasperating, relationship is less about friendship or political bonds than a deep and mutually uneasy dependency.

Nominally allies, the neighbors operate in a near-constant state of tension, a mix of ancient distrust and dislike, and the grating knowledge that they are inextricably tangled up with each other, however much they might chafe against it.

This matters because if China is not the solution to the nuclear crisis, then outsiders long sold on the idea must recalibrate their efforts as North Korea approaches a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, something the CIA chief this week estimated as only a matter of months away.

“The North Koreans have always driven China crazy,” said John Delury, an expert on both countries at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “And, for their part, the North Koreans have always felt betrayed by China, but both sides need each other in elemental ways.”


One clue about how Chinese see the North can be seen in two widespread nicknames for the overweight, third-generation North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: Kim Fatty The Third (金三胖) and Kim Fat Fat Fat (金胖胖胖).

As China rises as an economic, military and diplomatic heavyweight whose reach extends from the Americas to Asia, many there resent being dragged down by an impoverished, stubborn, Third-World dictatorship that allows its people to go hungry while its leader lives in luxury and expands a nuclear arsenal that could lead to war with Washington.

North Korean missile tests hurt trade and tourism, and strengthen the US presence in a region that China believes it should dominate. North Korean nuclear tests set off earthquakes near the Chinese border and raise fears of radioactive contamination.

There is also scorn for the North’s brutal, nepotistic brand of socialism and displeasure that North Korean aggression led South Korea to allow on its territory a US anti-missile system that Beijing says can be used to spy on its operations.

This growing disdain is reflected in China’s willingness to permit criticism of the North in the media and to allow tougher sanctions at the UN. Beijing has suspended imports of coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles from the North.

Although North Korea takes pride in its ability to absorb pain, be it war, famine, sanctions or condemnation, China’s tougher line will rob Pyongyang of key sources of foreign currency.

Still, nothing China has done offsets its underlying fear that too much external pressure could collapse the government in Pyongyang.

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