Pyongyang's Future Is in Beijing

North Korea's increased economic cooperation with China could stave off reform for years to come.

Boat under the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge.During the Korean War, American forces could not venture past the Yalu River even after China entered the war. Today, the water separates China from its ally North Korea—and the future from the past.

The People’s Republic of China is on the move. Once an isolated and impoverished empire, the Chinese people suffered even greater horror when Japan invaded and the communists seized control. Only after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 did the madness cease. Economic reforms began soon thereafter. Although the Chinese Communist Party jealously retained its monopoly on political power—highlighted by the killings in Tiananmen Square—the apparatchiks relaxed their control over most life decisions. Today, the Chinese enjoy a world of opportunities long denied their ancestors.

Dandong, a city of some 2.4 million, sits on the Yalu. The port is connected by rail to Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province. A Chinese university student who grew up there told me that the city has changed dramatically over the last ten years. High-rise office and apartment buildings dominate the skyline. The riverfront bustles, its pedestrian promenade overrun by tourists. Traffic fills the streets.

The city of Sinuiju on the North Korean side of the river is very different. Much of the land is undeveloped. The few buildings are low and old. There are no parks. The pace of life is languid. No tour boats take tourists for a peak at the Chinese side. It “looks the same” as a decade ago, commented my friend.

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea glories in its philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance. However, a one-way bridge called the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge long has served as the North’s lifeline. Every morning, traffic shifts back to the DPRK, and a steady stream of trucks, buses, automobiles and pedestrians head south.

Next to it is the so-called “Broken Bridge,” which was bombed by the United States during the Korean War. The span was never repaired—it now is protected as a cultural icon—to illustrate America’s wartime role. The bridge, which ends mid-river, is a major tourist attraction.

With Dandong accounting for about half of the North’s trade with China, the Friendship Bridge is no longer enough. A couple of years ago, China began constructing another connection, the New Yalu River Bridge, nearby. Even though North Korea, unlike the South, is no export giant, there are still hundreds of millions of dollars in commerce. Beijing also provides substantial energy and food aid. This steady flow across the Yalu has helped North Korea survive, despite its Stalinist economic model.

Even as Pyongyang’s behavior has grown more provocative—sinking a South Korean warship and bombarding a South Korean island in 2010—Beijing has strengthened bilateral ties. Indeed, China has been investing in the DPRK economy, apparently planning for the long term. Although Beijing has never evinced much enthusiasm for the North Korean system of monarchical communism, the PRC leadership appears to have accepted Kim Jong-un just as it adapted to his father’s ascension. Kim accompanied his father to China before the latter’s death, and Beijing sent a delegation to the latter’s funeral. China has tightened its embrace of Pyongyang despite American requests that the PRC “solve” the North Korean problem.

Unfortunately, the current situation nicely serves Chinese interests: the DPRK’s existence gives Beijing a close geopolitical ally, prevents reunification of the Korean peninsula under an American-allied government, keeps U.S. troops off of its border, and encourages South Korea, Japan and even America to seek Chinese assistance. One U.S. diplomat stationed in China told me he believed Washington’s intervention in the South China Sea almost guaranteed greater Chinese backing for the North as one of its geopolitical cards.

Jang Song-taek, Kim’s uncle—who likely has more practical power than Kim despite the latter’s important symbolic role—recently visited Beijing, which may signal even closer bilateral economic cooperation. He met Chinese president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao and reportedly requested the PRC’s assistance in developing two special trade zones near the border. Although no major new agreements were announced, Beijing long has advocated reform along Chinese lines and could be expected to reward the North for positive change, easing a potentially difficult political transition.

Although Pyongyang has publicly derided South Korean predictions of economic reform, the DPRK can be expected to resist the appearance of doing anything under pressure. Jang long has been thought to be involved in economic policy and appears to have gained authority from recent political machinations in Pyongyang. The regime appointed his close ally to oversee the military and reportedly reestablished civilian control over economic enterprises being operated by the military. Then a military rival, vice marshal and army chief of staff Ri Yong-ho unexpectedly “retired” for “health” reasons.

Economic reform would be good for the North Korean people, who have been reduced to malnutrition and, at times, starvation. Even a limited economic opening would improve their standard of living. Over time the process might encourage a more open society and an eventual shift away from the Kim dynasty’s “military-first” policy and toward greater political pluralism.