Looking for Fissures in China-North Korea Relations

Just how much influence does China continue to exercise over North Korea in 2017?

Looking for Fissures in China-North Korea Relations
Credit: Damir Sagolj, Reuters

When it comes to consequential methods of pressuring North Korea, the daily dump from Donald Trump’s Twitter account pales in comparison to the actions taken along the Chinese border with the DPRK.

North Korean diplomats and leaders are not on pins and needles waiting for the next tweet – they already know what Trump’s playbook will be, and are instead watching Beijing for signs of change, and keeping an eye on the border with China. Trump may very well believe the borderline sycophantic analysis that suggests otherwise, but this U.S. president has limited means with which to alter the strategic balance with North Korea. Ordering a Nixon-style troop withdrawal from South Korea or provoking a second Korean War by means of a preemptive strike on Pyongyang do not appear to be serious options.

By contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping may be frustrated with Kim Jong-un, but China’s relatively abundant ties with North Korea and the anchors of trading posts up and down their shared frontier mean that Xi holds a stronger hand than Trump. Kim Jong-un knows this – and he also knows what is good for him.

North Korea’s leader is surely more attuned to changes in Beijing’s posture and more busy watching the country’s balance sheet with China than he is worried about an American strike, the timing of which is immaterial, since his entire society is predicated upon the idea that the United States could strike at anytime. In the North Korean view of history, Trump is not some aberration, a riddle to be solved, a yin to Obama’s yang – he is functionally the reincarnation of Harry Truman, the president who bombed North Korea remorselessly, took no options off the table, and threatened the country with nuclear devastation.

What would cause consternation in Pyongyang is a fundamental shift to the Communist Party of China’s approach to North Korea.