Tensions are running high on the Korean Peninsula, and instability is coming if it’s not already there. North Korea is declaring that truces no longer apply, claiming that the UN is faking its report on North Korean human rights abuses and threatening “thermonuclear war” against its aggressors.
I was in China last week, where I met with senior Chinese foreign policy officials who told me they don’t have the influence over North Korea they once had. There’s a self-promotional reason to say the situation is increasingly out of their hands – it insulates them from pressure to play a leading role in punishing miscreant North Korean behavior. But I think we should start to believe them. Thus far, the normal Chinese channels have not worked. The officials told me that China has resorted to unofficial contacts – through business leaders, informal contacts, etc. – to try to pass on the word to Pyongyang. Mao Zedong famously once called China and North Korea’s relationship as “close as lips and teeth.” Today, when it comes to private bilateral communication, it seems Pyongyang’s lips are sealed, and China’s teeth are grinding.
How, then, do you solve a problem like Dear Leader? There are some within China asking whether the Chinese should break off contact altogether. A senior Communist Party official claimed that delegates discussed whether to “keep or dump” North Korea at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in early March. In a Financial Times piece entitled “China Should Abandon North Korea,” the deputy editor of the journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party argued that the China-North Korea alliance was “outdated” and that “nuclear blackmail” from Pyongyang in the future couldn’t be ruled out. The silent treatment would be a last-ditch attempt to get North Korea’s attention by calling its bluff.
Rest assured, silence from China would prove painful for North Korea. Since the early 1990s, China has provided an estimated 90+ percent of North Korea’s energy imports. Some estimates claim China provides 80 percent of the country’s consumer goods and 45 percent of its food. Beijing seems to have the power to unravel the North Korean economy.
But China, which recently supported a UN sanction against North Korea, has little to gain from that instability, and breaking off contact altogether would likely only exacerbate it. North Korea’s behavior is already driving South Korea and Japan into deeper ties with the United States. Its stance draws attention to just how little control China has over its most desperate neighbor. And, of course, it brings the threat of nuclear war to within 500 miles of China’s capital.