Despite the current border closures between their two countries, China and North Korea remain resolutely pledged to a “blood-alliance.” But this partnership has vastly different implications depending on which side of the border you consider. In many ways, COVID-19 provided a convenient excuse for Kim Jong-un to close the borders in the name of public health while simultaneously signaling to Beijing that he did not want Chinese aid, even if it meant having to starve his own people. Kim likely wants the border closed to also limit Chinese influence and leverage in the North’s internal affairs.
China’s main goal with North Korea has always been regional stability. From a Chinese perspective, while Kim’s nuclear weapons may not be ideal, the situation could become more dangerous should a power vacuum be introduced. Despite Beijing’s rhetoric purporting the desire for an eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, China’s priority has always been maintaining the geopolitical status quo in the region. North Korea’s denuclearization efforts remain a secondary concern for China, Beijing apparently perceiving that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons pose a minimal threat to China.
Moreover, Beijing is likely pleased that North Korea wants to drive U.S. forces off the peninsula. Once North Korea’s nuclear weapons are paired with a significant number of ICBMs over the next few years, they will raise questions about the U.S. extended deterrence for the region. This will potentially undermine the U.S. alliances with the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan. China would favor this outcome as it would weaken U.S. influence in the region.
The problem with these perspectives is that it fails to recognize the actual threat posed to China by North Korean nuclear weapons. A single North Korean nuclear weapon with the yield (explosive power) of the North’s sixth nuclear weapon test could kill or seriously injure several million people in Beijing. While this number would be a small fraction of the Chinese population, it would be a large fraction of its core leadership, risking government continuity. And according to Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos who has visited the North Korean Yongbyon nuclear facility several times, North Korea may have 45 or so nuclear weapons.
China might want to consider whether they have reason to be concerned about the mid- to longer-term geopolitical implications of an unrestrained North Korean nuclear weapons program. Its current lack of concern is somewhat at odds with Beijing’s typical long-term strategic thinking. It may be possible that China’s cold war with the United States is blindsiding Beijing’s leadership with respect to the developing North Korean threat.
Indeed, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons should be viewed as a double-edged sword for Beijing. Kim apparently views his nuclear weapons as an insurance mechanism to thwart any superpower from threatening his autonomy. They offer him a way to become a regional power—able to deter even partners and superpowers like China and the United States respectively.
And despite Kim Jong-un’s promises to negotiate North Korean denuclearization, he has been doing exactly the opposite. North Korea keeps building nuclear weapons, with some estimates that Kim could have as many as 200 nuclear weapons in the next decade or so. Kim does not need that many nuclear weapons for defensive purposes, raising questions of how Kim might use so many weapons for coercive and other purposes. China does not appear to recognize this possibility.
But perhaps it should. Pyongyang has demonstrated its willingness to defy Beijing’s interests. Kim’s continued launching of ICBMs in 2017 despite Beijing’s requests to halt testing demonstrated his personal defiance towards his “bigger brother.” Kim’s actions showed that despite sharing a border with the most populous military in the world, he would prioritize his own interests over the desires of his most critical ally. In many ways, North Korea seems to see China as a means to the North’s ends—Pyongyang recognizes Beijing’s importance in keeping the country fed, but also rejects any semblance of sadae (Korean for “serving the great”).
Will Kim allow China to pressure North Korea once the North has 100 or more nuclear weapons? What happens if North Korea were to commit provocations directly against China? When a division arose between North Korea and China in 2017, China threatened to bomb North Korea if the North crossed Chinese red-lines and North Korea strongly denounced China.
China is focusing on reducing U.S. pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. But it would seem prudent for China to consider that even now, Kim Jong-un seems to be creating more instability in North Korea than outside countries like the United States is. That instability could lead to the kind of chaos that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said he will not allow. And if China were to intervene in chaos in North Korea, which way would North Korean nuclear weapons be pointed? If one North Korean nuclear weapon could kill or seriously injure millions of Chinese elite in Beijing, wouldn’t North Korea’s growing nuclear inventory pose an existential threat to China?
The United States already recognizes the existential threat posed by North Korean nuclear weapons to its allies the ROK and Japan, and within a few years to the United States. These threats motivate U.S. efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Only when China recognizes that it also might face a North Korean existential threat will China likely be prepared to be more of a partner with the United States in trying to denuclearize North Korea.
Bruce W. Bennett is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Diana Y. Myers is a student in the Pardee RAND Graduate School and a U.S. Air Force 1st lieutenant.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.