It is one of the most oft-repeated pieces of wisdom in modern diplomacy: The one power with true influence over the isolated North Korean regime is its neighbor, China. This is supported by a raft of seemingly irrefutable facts. China supplies the vast bulk of North Korea’s energy, accounts for almost all its foreign trade, and shares, in name at least, a similar political system (despite in practice being vastly different) and a deeply interlinked modern history. The two are so close that they are like “lips and teeth,” as the phrase — repeated during Kim Jong-un’s two visits to China earlier in 2018 — goes.
For all China’s assumed influence, one of the perennial puzzles is why Beijing has consistently proven so reluctant to ever do anything to actually use its sway over Pyongyang. Even the planned summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, now called off, seemed to leave China following in the tail winds rather than initiating things. After all, Kim and Trump had informally agreed to aim for a summit before the North Korean leader’s first surprise visit to Beijing earlier in 2018.
If China is so influential, why does it so often seem thwarted and frustrated by its tiny, impoverished neighbor? The most prominent example of this is the issue that vexes everyone, Pyongyang’s nuclearization. China resolutely opposed North Korea’s nuclear weapons program a decade ago, and had many opportunities to thwart it, but where Pyongyang still went ahead despite all of this. Why is an ostensibly all-powerful China often made to look so impotent when it comes to North Korean affairs?
Maybe we can understand this question better by focusing less on what China’s influence is, and more what its real attitude toward North Korea might be. After all, a positive or negative attitude is likely to have a big impact on how you try to influence someone, with the former likely to carry more weight than the latter.
We know that underneath the commonalities, there is deep distrust between the two and that Chinese leaders have long since lost any feelings of fraternal friendliness toward their “socialist little brother,” if they ever had these. But anyone who spends time listening to Chinese academics, policymakers, and indeed members of the general public will be struck by one very powerful recurring characteristic in the language they use — the immense levels of disdain and condescension they show. To many Chinese, North Korea, if it does figure as a brother, is clearly regarded as a delinquent one they not only dislike, but look down on. And on the rare occasions when one can listen to North Koreans speak about their Chinese neighbors, it’s apparent that attitude comes across loud and clear, and has created enormous but largely suppressed resentment.
The simple fact is that China is so distant in its dealings with North Korea because Beijing thinks of Pyongyang as incapable of anything sensible. As a great, proud nation, of course, China can’t demean itself by ever openly expressing this sort of contempt. But it is there in almost every action and word the People’s Republic produces towards the DPRK. More than 50 countries have merited visits from Chinese leader Xi Jinping since 2013. But, at least until he sets foot there later this year on a scheduled visit, North Korea has not been one of them. China seems to regard its little brother as so beneath it that it much prefers talking to it not bilaterally but through the defunct Six Party Talks, last held in 2009.
China’s conviction that North Korea is not just a problem nation but a delinquent one frames the outcomes it envisages for this partner. From the Chinese perspective, the best that can ever be hoped from North Korea is that they just muddle through. Taking responsibility for North Korea means taking responsibility for an ungrateful and truculent burden. After all, China said goodbye to the Maoist mission of saving fellow socialist countries from oblivion after it got its fingers badly burned with the Vietnamese when the United States was at war with them in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite huge financial, military and other assistance, China’s reward when the Communist North Vietnamese won in 1975 was to be cursed, betrayed, and, in 1979, reduced to war with their former ally. This more than anything else means that with North Korea at most China will practice restrained intervention as a last resort. For the rest of the time, it is a matter of ring fencing, and tolerating a partner that will never change for the simple reason that they are incapable of doing so.
These feelings of condescension, disdain, and contempt held by Chinese policymakers and leaders toward North Korea imply that Westerners are displaying naivity in expecting anything else from Pyongyang. The attitude in Beijing to the news of Trump’s cancellation of the Singapore summit was most likely not surprise, therefore, or disappointment, relief, or even shock – but a weary shrug of the shoulders along with the question of why on earth the Americans ever expected, even in offering something as important as a presidential meeting, that they would get anything from Pyongyang but insults and manipulations. After all, that is pretty much all that China has received in the last seven decades – and they even fought wars to defend the North, and saved its people from starvation.
And the Chinese won’t say it aloud, but they will certainly think it: they would have told us so. That’s if we had bothered to ask in the first place.