Be Afraid: China Can't Control North Korea

"The People’s Republic represents modernity and progress, and modernity and progress are critical threats to Kim’s state."

This month in Beijing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked China’s leader Xi Jinping to do more to disarm North Korea. In February, Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was in the Chinese capital, goaded his counterparts on the same topic. President Obama, while meeting Xi in The Hague during the Nuclear Security Summit in March, discussed the denuclearization of the North.

The Chinese are getting a little peeved by all this recent attention. Beijing’s ambassador to the United States in the middle of this month was unhappy about Washington leaning on his country. “You are giving us a mission impossible,” Cui Tiankai said to an audience in the American capital.

A decade ago, China chose not to use its considerable influence on the North. Now, from all appearances, it doesn’t have much of it. That’s probably why Ambassador Cui complains about receiving impossible missions from Americans.

Cui certainly remembers what happened in December. Then, Kim Jong-un, the young North Korean ruler, had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed. China not only lost its most influential contact in Pyongyang when Jang died in a hail of large-caliber rounds, but it also found itself demonized by the regime as it explained the harsh sentence.

In detailing Jang’s crimes, the official Korean Central News Agency on December 13 made two references to the People’s Republic of China: his selling of “coal and other precious underground resources at random” and his “selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades.” And the charge of Jang being “bribed by enemies” is undoubtedly a reference to the Chinese as well.

Chinese officials genuinely appeared surprised by Jang’s purge and execution, and that is an indication of how much access and influence they have lost in Pyongyang in recent years. When Kim Il-sung and Mao Zedong both ruled, the two states professed to be—and often were—lips-and-teeth close. Then, both leaders were communist, Confucian, Chinese-speaking, and chubby. No wonder diplomacy was conducted on a leader-to-leader basis.

Subsequent generations of rulers on both sides of the border have drifted apart, however, and the execution of Jang signals a rupture. Kim Jong-un had given Jang Song Thaek nearly free rein to handle relations with Beijing. This almost-complete delegation meant that in late 2013, Kim essentially cut himself off from his biggest benefactor when he killed his uncle.

If he had stopped there, relations with Beijing could have been easily repaired. Kim, however, continued his “reign of terror” and is now systematically rooting out Jang’s nationwide patronage network. As the young leader does so, he is eliminating underlings who had handled China matters for Uncle Jang.

While Kim takes down Jang’s friends, he is trying to rebuild his lifeline to the Chinese capital. For instance, he sent Kim Ki-sok to Beijing and Shenzhen in February looking for Chinese money. The young leader even seems to have begun rehabilitating some of Jang’s allies because of their China expertise or knowledge. There are reports that Kim has reinstated two such officials. For instance, the cloud over Ji Jae-ryong, considered a “linking pin” between Jang and China, has been lifted, apparently because he is needed to represent the Kim regime in Beijing.

It is no secret why the North Koreans need China. Chinese cash—in the form of outright grants as well as the proceeds of trade and investment—keep the regime afloat. Yet Kim Jong-un’s actions hardly reflect the growing dependency. The young dictator, after all, felt confident enough to eliminate most of his officials dealing with China and he undertook actions—long-range missile tests, a third nuclear detonation, an abrogation of the Korean War armistice, to name just a few of them—that appeared to have genuinely upset Beijing.

Chinese officials have to be asking themselves why their policies, despite everything, have apparently failed to command the obedience and respect of their destitute neighbor. Since the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, the balance of power has been tipping in favor of the weaker party. There are several reasons explaining the seemingly paradoxical loss of China’s clout at a time when the North increasingly depends on Chinese money.