The Impossible State is the title of Victor Cha’s recent penetrating work on North Korea. Few descriptions have ever been so apt. Once again thrust into international spotlight by their third nuclear test, the North’s isolation is now all but total. A raft of international sanctions has left the country more alone than at any time in its history, while large swaths of the nation remain mired in deprivation and want. Amidst the global approbation, however, there remains one glaring exception.
The North Korean embassy in Beijing is big. Occupying a full city block, it is ensconced between two barbed-wire-topped concrete walls. It is a cold and unwelcoming place, not unlike the country it represents. Thus perhaps China should not be surprised when it denounces the North’s troublemaking only to be met with defiant shrugs, as has often happened in the past.
The overall international situation is strangely incongruous. China, which on many other fronts has so assiduously courted western approval and integration, has nevertheless stubbornly pursued a lackadaisical look-the-other-way North Korea policy that infuriates western powers and on the surface even appears reckless. Why is it that China—a country so loath to be bullied by any nation and so prickly to any perceived international slight—tolerates a country like North Korea?
It might be tempting write off the China-North Korea conundrum as an idiosyncrasy of Communist brotherhood. But the truth is rooted in a number of far more practical considerations that both sides are acutely aware of.
Do Not Pass Go
Western international relations have often been likened to a game of chess; nations are players and engage their pieces in a direct win-or-lose contest. The Chinese corollary is another game, Wei Qi, also known as Go. In Go, players do not engage directly but achieve victory through encirclement. It is a difficult and subtle game whose simple rules belie its strategic complexity. Chinese foreign policy thinking and the popular imagination of the general public is dominated by this metaphor. A cursory glance at any map of East and Southeast Asia drives the point home. The United States presently maintains soldiers or security commitments with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. We sell arms to Taiwan, and are moving furtively to bolster relations with Myanmar and Vietnam. It all adds up to a grim position for China.
By not being a client of the United States, North Korea is in a de facto sense on ”China’s side,” and currently serves as a critical buffer state between China and the West. If it collapsed, the Korean peninsula would likely be reunified under a South Korean dominated regime. This would bring U.S. soldiers to China’s northeastern doorstep. The location is rife with political significance, as it was the launch point of Japanese aggression during WWII. The presence of a large foreign army (aside from North Korea’s) in this location would ignite a security crisis within the People’s Republic and would be perceived as a critical reversal in the Go game. China’s security requires that it keep the North alive no matter how nettlesome or intransigent it becomes. North Korea, secure in this knowledge, has pursued their aspirations with a blasé indifference to China’s wishes—or anyone else’s.
A North Korean collapse would also produce a catastrophic refugee crisis in China’s northeast, as hordes of impoverished North Koreans fled disorder into the safety of a comparatively wealthy China. Most North Koreans have little education, few marketable skills and would likely place enormous strain on any economy which sought to absorb them. While South Korea would also feel the pinch, getting across the heavily-mined DMZ would not be easy even without the ubiquitous presence of the North Korean security guards who currently patrol the area.
By contrast, China’s North Korean border has become porous to accommodate the hive of quasi-legal businesses that have developed over the last decade. Though the North shares a common language and ethnicity with the South, its modern development and culture are alien to the North Koreans who do manage to end up there. Furthermore, most North Koreans are baptized in enmity for their southern neighbor (with whom they are still technically at war). China by contrast would offer cultural affinity and a less alien political climate.
Until very recently, any North Korean foolish enough to ”escape” to China was promptly repatriated to almost certain death. Though China has bowed to international headwinds in halting that policy, it becomes a very different ballgame with the tens of millions of people that would almost certainly accompany a North Korean collapse. The Chinese nightmare scenario is what to do when return to sender is no longer an option.
The Statecraft of Suicide
For all its bluster, nuclear tests and threats of “miserable destruction,” North Korea’s most potent international bargaining chip remains the threat of its own implosion. Bad as we are, they may taunt, our mere existence prevents chaos on the peninsula. Our order, repulsive as you may find it, is better than no order. Now that the North is a thrice certified nuclear power, the threat becomes all the more potent.
Shortly after Kim Jong-il died, I wrote in these spaces that conditions in North Korea were ripe for economic liberalization, and I stand by it. The departed Kim had made tentative openings (such as the Special Economic Zone at Rason) and increased links to China. It was widely rumored at the time that North Korea’s political class was increasingly looking for an opening. So far, despite some amusing wishful thinking, few concrete steps have been seen.
Yet the inexorable march of the information age and globalization will eventually make the regime unsustainable. This in turn would create an untenable situation for China. The Middle Kingdom’s best hope for saving face would be for them to successfully convince the North of the need for economic liberalization and eventual self-sufficiency. Though those efforts have long been stalled, their ultimate success is critical for China's strategic position. The world can expect China to place extraordinary pressure on the North to affect such reforms. Creating wealth and raising living standards would give the people something to lose and thus something to protect. If it ever comes to pass, it would destroy the statecraft of suicide and usher in a radical new chapter for North Korea, China and the world.
Jonathan Levine is a lecturer of American Studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group. You can follow him on Twitter at @LevineJonathan.