Why China Needs to Act on North Korea


It’s bad enough that South Korean intelligence alleged in early May that the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, had ordered the execution of his recently appointed minister of defense. Satellite evidence that this execution might have been carried out by anti-aircraft guns added a horribly macabre twist.

Of course, nothing has been verified as yet. Claims that Kim’s uncle-in-law Jang Song-thaek had been torn apart by dogs ended up being revealed as fantasies cooked up online. Even so, like nature, news abhors a vacuum, and fills information gaps with speculation. If the DPRK has nothing to hide, why all the secrecy?

In the past, Hu Jintao would sporadically burst into uncharacteristic moments of lyricism when talking of China’s allies across the northeast border. In 2006, he called their revolutionary achievements “delightful.” But President Xi Jinping, who on the whole speaks far more effusively of foreign friends (at least to their faces), has remained strangely tight-lipped about one of China’s sole remaining Communist allies. When a Chinese leader visits Fiji, Pakistan, and Tasmania before setting foot in the DPRK, something has gone badly wrong in the China-North Korea relationship.

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Over a decade ago, as a diplomat, I sat in on strategic official discussions about Asia, in which the subject of North Korea invariably cropped up. On most issues, from China to Indonesia to Pakistan, even at the worst of times, people had ideas on how to handle the situation. There were possible future scenarios that offered hope — and usually, the worst didn’t happen. The topic of North Korea was different. After discussing the challenges and problems, people went silent when asked for ideas about future possibilities. On the whole, people knew they were near an abyss, but didn’t want to stare too much into it. Participants quickly moved on to the next part of the agenda.

Seasoned experts from former British ambassador in Pyongyang John Everard to the excellent analyst Andrei Lankov have written powerfully about the challenges of the DPRK. But once the topic of policy proposals comes up, the airwaves mostly go silent. Lankov was only able to suggest more “people-to-people contact” – problematic in view of the fact that so few can get in or out of the country. But his preceding diagnosis was clear enough: the Kim regime has no Plan B. Market reform means unleashing the latent resentments of a public that may well turn on its rulers. Repression for today pays off and is the only safe bet.

The young Kim sitting in Pyongyang, at the age of approximately 32, evidently regards governance as an extension of online war gaming. Perhaps, if the rumors of how his defense minister was executed prove true, that is where the appalling idea came from. Kim’s puerile acts betray a person utterly removed from the real world, whose sole experience beyond the DPRK is two years cosseted in privilege in Geneva.

But the Chinese leadership’s ominous silence about his antics is no joke. The simple fact is that any scenarios we look at into the future are bad. Continuation of this inhumane and tragic current situation is obscene enough, even if that seems to be what most outsiders will tolerate. The UN Human Rights report issued last year on the DPRK spells the reasons for why this is unacceptable out in forensic detail – the regime in North Korea is carrying out human rights violations on a scale unprecedented anywhere in the world. Can the international community really continue tolerating this, especially now the world knows so much about it?

If the Kim regime collapses, however (and there is every sign that this is a far more imminent situation than many might currently contemplate) what then? Option one is that China takes control, and the country becomes a vassal state. South Korea and its ally the United States would find this intolerable. It would cause geopolitical bedlam. Option two is the reverse: South Korea comes in and handles things. But to China that means the same thing as the United States taking control, as U.S. troops could be based right up to its northeast border. China fought a vast war from 1950 to 1953 to avoid precisely that situation; it would likely to do so again.

But these options simply talk about outside actors. We know next to nothing in the end about the allegiances and fissures within domestic DPRK politics. Maybe the recent spate of removals and judicial murders by Kim only show there are real, deep factions in Pyongyang that he is fighting against. In that case, the most likely outcome is for the Kim regime to be battled by one or two other groups — in effect, civil war within a country divided for six decades because of a previous civil war. Add the fact that the DPRK has primitive nuclear weapons and things get even worse.

The grim possibilities for the DPRK’s future are probably the reason why, over ten years ago, those government meetings I sat in on went so silent. As Everard and Lankov show, North Korea is a morally, economically and politically bankrupt state, one that is fading by the minute. But its demise will cause huge instability and trouble no matter what the outcome. The Kim regime is propped up by the fear and hesitancy of the outside world as much as by the fear it creates within the North Korean population. It is ring-fenced with diplomatic distaste, with China, the United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan largely washing their hands of it.

The only real solution is for China and the U.S. to run against the current of their previous history on this issue, and hammer out a consensus that accepts the Kim regime has to be removed. However unlikely this sounds, there might be one aspect that compels them toward such a concord. Of all the issues in the region, from the maritime disputes to Taiwan to China’s current diplomatic push in central Asia, the North Korea issue is the most destabilizing, the most pressing, and the most likely to cause real conflict.

The world is watching a regime in its dying throes, but seems willing to bury its head in the sand and hope the problem goes away. This is unsustainable and intolerable. The U.S. and Chine need to make creating a diplomatic consensus on this issue their top priority. Otherwise, it will engulf the region and the outside world in the sort of chaos that will make ISIS’s actions in the Middle East look like peripheral skirmishes.

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