By David Reeths, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Reeths is director of IHS Jane’s Consulting. This article is based on a full analysis published today in IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
It’s an all too familiar refrain as tensions on the Korean Peninsula surge: given its status as North Korea’s closest ally, China must use its influence on Pyongyang to defuse the situation.
Such statements are based on a number of assumptions, including that China sits in the driver’s seat and can control North Korean actions. The problem with these assumptions is that they underestimate the complexity of the bilateral relationship and ignore the fact that while China is certainly the closest thing to an ally that North Korea has, Pyongyang keeps Beijing in the dark as often as not as well.
The current rhetoric out of North Korea is far outside the bounds of the now “normal” bombast that we come to expect from Pyongyang. Some analysts believe it is just the next phase of a familiar cycle of threat, negotiation, and aid delivery from South Korea and the West, while others insist that this situation is being driven primarily by the need for the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un to shore up his internal powerbase.
Less well explored is the very real possibility that the Chinese themselves are the key audience.
Lost among the din are very clear signals that North Korea believes its current situation is untenable. Although information on what is happening inside the country is hard to come by and even harder to decipher, it is apparent the economic situation in the country is bad and deteriorating, especially as the latest rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions and currency controls (in many cases set up to combat the flow of finances to terrorists) take their toll on the country and its elite.
While domestic considerations or more aid from South Korea and the United States could very well be the North’s short game, it is likely that Kim Jong Un, and those advising him, recognize that in the face of a worsening domestic situation and less compliant adversaries, something more drastic is required.
That “game changer” could take a number of forms. It might involve liberalizing the economy or pursuing reunification talks with the South. However, most of the options would be opposed by well-formed interest groups. For example, economic reforms would provide an opportunity for hardline true believers to potentially challenge Kim, while any reunification scheme would almost certainly be steadfastly opposed by Beijing as it would remove the North’s role as a buffer state against one of the United States’ strongest allies.
Therefore, neither is feasible at this time, at least as long as Kim has any concerns about his control over the country. So until his position is secure, he must find a bridge strategy – and the lone palatable option is to increase Chinese support for the North Korean state and regime.
Outside of the North Korean elite, Beijing has the biggest stake in maintaining an independent, ostensibly pro-Chinese state. Although North Korea certainly receives significant resources from China, the current amount only scratches the surface of what Beijing would probably provide to maintain the status quo on the peninsula.
Increasing its extortion of China – or “deepening their strategic partnership” as it could alternatively be termed – certainly doesn’t prevent Pyongyang from extracting aid from other sources, even if those efforts seem increasingly futile in the face of less compliant leadership in Seoul and Washington, DC.
So what are China’s likely responses to the suite of actions available to North Korea? Just as the United States’ support for South Korea is not just about formal agreements, but a need to maintain the credibility of its commitments, China has no option but to back the North in nearly all circumstances. As direct intervention by China into North Korea is nearly unthinkable (especially considering that it, too, is restrained by North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities), the most radical course of action available would be supporting internal regime change, which would be incredibly risky and bring a host of new challenges.
Only in the case of certain collapse could China justify direct action in North Korea, and even in that case intervention would severely damage Beijing’s oft-cited narrative of its “peaceful rise.” In this light, appeasement of the North is really the only option available to China.
And considering the economic costs of a conflict and the embarrassment and discomfort caused by the ensuing increase in the U.S. military presence in China’s backyard, even extremely large resource transfers would be quite a bargain.
If extortion of all available donors is indeed the North’s strategy, then South Korea and the United States should maintain their current stance to avoid another cycle of threat, negotiation, and aid, while ensuring that their response to provocations inflicts pain without threatening Kim’s position.
For its part, China will be watching their response carefully: a softening of position by the West could relieve Beijing of some of its obligations to prop up the North. If South Korea and the United States hold firm, though, then China is trapped. And since it is trapped, the best course of action for China is to proactively increase the Kim regime’s economic stability and thereby hopefully avoid the risks of uncontrolled escalation as North Korea tries to gain their attention.
Over the long term, as Kim’s position solidifies and entrenches, other options such as economic liberalization may very well become workable and allow North Korea the real self-reliance it craves. But until that time, China is the best, most reliable source for the resources needed to prop up the regime.
There is no way to know if this is the dangerous game that Kim Jong Un and his advisers are playing. But the implications of this scenario are, at the very least, worth examining, especially for the country the world believes is sitting in the driver’s seat.