Actually, North Korea threats are about China
April 10th, 2013
01:49 PM ET

Actually, North Korea threats are about China

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.

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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.

More from CNN: Cheney warns over North Korea

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.

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Topics: China • North Korea

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    China may thought, "I mind my business-don't talk about me. I don't talk about yours".

    The new 'DON'T TALK' policy, not signed yet.

    April 10, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Whatever Kim Jong-un and his advisors have in mind, China is definitely no pleased, how this showdown on the Korean Peninsula has drawn the world's attention to its relationship with North Korea. The leadership in Beijing is also in a dilemma, due to its interests in the region. It finds itself torn between the choice of keeping the status quo and the desire to teach the unruly regime in Pyongyang a lesson. Indeed should this bluster die down, China will have to do some soul searching on its future policies in North Korea.

    April 10, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: China is definitely NOT pleased with the way, how this showdown on the Korean Peninsula ......

      April 10, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  3. JAL

    Thank President Obama. He is ready to lead.

    April 10, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  4. Josh

    Obama will save us all.

    April 10, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Reply
    • Kerry

      Now that was an idiotic statement, Josh. Barack Obama doesn't have the sense to talk with Kim Song Un like he needs to in order to diffuse the situation. Besides, one doesn't save anything or anyone by going to war!

      April 11, 2013 at 1:54 am | Reply
      • Pete

        @Kerry,Pres.Obama doesn't have to talk to anyone especially an arrogent ,selfserving China..A China that thinks in its own egotistical way the world rotates around its Asian country..No we don't have to get with China because some here remember history and their influence in the Korean war and its American prisoners if alive would never forget their captures who again thought of their superiority over all else breathing...China remember economicly is as much in our debt buying their low quality crap as we are in theirs financially because without us they fail to be a viable economic power like a drug dealer without their junkies right to buy their product.Remember you're only as good as your last sale and if China wants problems their exports will suffer as well,one hand washing the other so to speak...

        April 11, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  5. Fungsam

    Actualy, not about China. North Korean threats try to serve the South Korean companies to penetrate deeper in the Western markets.

    April 11, 2013 at 3:20 am | Reply
  6. Hahahahahahaha

    Hey you over there!!!!!!! Come pull my finger quick!!!!!!! I'm bound up tighter than a worker in a cheese factory!!!!! Hahahahahahahaha

    April 11, 2013 at 9:21 am | Reply
    • Clonedog

      Oh,take a laxative.Better yet,PUT A CORK IN IT,DEMON!!

      April 13, 2013 at 11:40 am | Reply
  7. DaveD5145

    Install intermediate range nuclear missiles in South Korea like Reagan did in Europe. That will get China's attention. Let S. Korea control them, then we can wash our hands of the whole place. No way are we going to write another 10 billion dollar check like Albright and Clinton did. China's problem. China's paranoia will cost them.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  8. JohnnyVistar

    The propagandas are for local consumption, to strengthen acceptance of dictator change.

    I think we could be witnessing the struggles of KJU as the new dear leader. Which means a split or power struggle within the military command. KJU's only backing appears to be his old uncle and aunty who are in the military command..

    A silent military coup or rebellion developing?

    April 11, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Reply
    • KAG

      Or possibly the oldest son who was passed over. You can't tell me that a person who was groomed all his life to take his father's place would be OK with being replaced by his younger brother. Not to mention the cronies who were pinning their hopes on the oldest son and that, when he was made leader, they would advance up the power ladder.

      There is something going on internally. Something that KJU and cronies are worried about.

      April 12, 2013 at 10:58 am | Reply
  9. Really People

    guess the powers at be learned absolutely nothing about underestimating the smaller foe... sad sad sad.. 2977 lives lost at 9/11 when they thought there was no "threat." I won't even post the casualties that would result in an "air burst" of a 1kt nuclear payload with "prevailing winds." it does not have to hit land to kill. and so what if we wipe out NK, will that bring back our brothers, sisters,moms and dads in hawaii or on the west coast who's lives are being put out for bait just to see what this "kid" does. "hmm I wonder if that shark bites? hey joe stick your hand in the water and let me know if that shark bites your arm off?" "don't worry, if he does I will spear him"

    April 12, 2013 at 1:23 am | Reply
  10. Matt

    I think they are threatening everyone and see who caves first the US/ROK or the PRC. When the DPRK say to China we can't protect your embassy, what do they mean. Wars happen all the time and foreign embassies are ok. The US and ROK are not going to fire on the Russian or PRC embassies. So what did they mean.

    April 12, 2013 at 7:15 am | Reply
  11. juan espiritusanto

    how come chine keep supplying NK with all the technology? including nuclear

    April 12, 2013 at 10:40 am | Reply
  12. juan espiritusanto

    thata china saying "look what NK can do, imagine we can do if we want to"

    April 12, 2013 at 10:41 am | Reply
  13. juan espiritusanto

    all that oil and NG in the south china sea is in the balance of power. everyone wants it including the USA

    April 12, 2013 at 10:42 am | Reply
  14. ping-gu

    WWIII in the way

    April 12, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply
    • giggig

      WW3 in the works. We hope not. There is a chance to work differences out

      April 20, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  15. Alex

    Pure speculation. Can't there be an article that relays the Chinese position or is China mute? I grow so tired of op-ed. where are real facts? Where is there an oultet for the Chinese position in all this????

    April 16, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Reply
  16. Brett Champion

    This is nothing but speculation.

    June 2, 2013 at 9:16 am | Reply
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  20. Lele

    I think you've just captured the answer pelrtcefy

    July 5, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Reply
  21. Akihito

    "I have a solution. All white lerabils emigrate to Africa."this guy actually is from south africa according to wikipedia.wonder if he's jewish, because let's be honest, in this article, it's every classic argument a jewish professor would make. i mean, this person is a professor at oxford? and his name IS goldin...what's funny is that south africa actually fought wars to keep illegal aliens out, and they mostly succeeded. once the standard of living in SA had risen to a high enough level, africans from all over africa began trying to swarm in there. one of my friends actually fought in a few of these military actions and killed people. they were ordered to burn the bodies with white phosphorous. after his tours he moved into training the local south africans for military service and did that for a while before leaving the army for the banking industry.SA authorities rightly saw that allowing their nation to be overrun by millions of illegals would not help anything. naturally libertarians (and politically hostile jews) would see this as "impinging the free movement of labor" or something like that. that's why libertarians don't run, in 2012, native south africans are actually able to organize (and sometimes, riot) for higher wages to work in the mines. if the border was open, native south africans would just be replaced by random africans from all over. this keeps their standard of living the highest in all of africa, with a per capita GDP of 8000 or so. professor oxford thinks that's too high and should be smashed down to 1000 or whatever the average is for africa. an open borders south africa probably isn't able to host the 2010 world cup.oh, derp. now i see that he IS jewish. it's like, after you've heard these guys for years, you can see them coming from a mile away.i guess the only question left is whether elon musk could have done his projects in south africa. that's probably a no, although nobody suggests eliminating immigration of people like elon musk.

    July 25, 2014 at 6:41 pm | Reply

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