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China’s Role in N. Korea’s Future

Why Couldn’t China Just Build a Fence?

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China’s Role in N. Korea’s Future

Posted on 29 June 2013 by "the witness"

April 14, 2010 by editor

By: Jack Campbell 

North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, second from right, lifts a glass with Chinese Communist Party International Department head Wang Jiarui in August 2012 in Pyongyang. A former senior U.S. negotiator on Tuesday said China has yet to sufficiently use its leverage to pressure the North to accept lasting denuclearization

North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, second from right, lifts a glass with Chinese Communist Party International Department head Wang Jiarui in August 2012 in Pyongyang. A former senior U.S. negotiator on Tuesday said China has yet to sufficiently use its leverage to pressure the North to accept lasting denuclearization (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency).

Throughout the entirety of the North Korean nuclear weapons dilemma, which became particularly alarming in 2003 when North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), China has gone to uncharacteristic lengths to prevent a military conflict, acting as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang.  China’s behaviour surrounding this issue—its tireless cajoling of the interested parties to return to the negotiating table—stands out as a departure from its typically passive involvement in international affairs.

On one level, China’s motivation is obvious; no country wants a war in its back yard.  But beyond that, it is clear that China is not in favor of regime change in Pyongyang.  Its efforts to diplomatically resolve the problem are evidence enough—if China wanted Kim Jong Il and his minions dethroned, it would simply stand by and let the US threaten North Korea unfettered.

What is less clear, and what has given rise to broad speculation, is China’s motivation for encouraging the stability of North Korea’s current regime.  Pundits in the media have variously accused China of being overly friendly with North Korea and being secretly ambivalent as to Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons.  The thesis behind most of these accusations is simply that China and North Korea are politically like-minded—China is a communist country looking out for its comrade.

Yet there is ample evidence that (1) China is strongly opposed to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and (2) the two countries have ideologically grown apart (China does not approve of the current regime’s horrifying human rights abuses and North Korea views China’s economic reforms as a betrayal to Marxist principles[1]).  As to nuclear weapons, China’s motivation for preventing proliferation is admittedly different from that of the US, but it may be just as strong.  While US concerns are related primarily to its own security, some analysts posit that China’s key concern is that proliferation will lead to US attempts at regime change—that is, China’s main concern is that the current regime not be changed.

Map of China, North Korea and Russia.  China has a porous 880 mile border with North Korea.

Map of China, North Korea and Russia. China has a porous 880 mile border with North Korea.

If China is now ideologically dissimilar to North Korea, why would it go to such great lengths to keep the current regime intact?  The answer may become clearer if one assumes that China’s most protected priority is ensuring its economic growth continues undisturbed.[2] A collapse of Pyongyang would have a number of consequences, including “loose nuclear material” now finding its way into the wrong hands”[3], but more important to China, perhaps, is its concern with how a resulting humanitarian crisis would disrupt its pursuit of economic stability (xiaokang).

The conflict in Iraq serves as a useful model for contemplating what could result from a regime-changing conflict in North Korea.  The population of North Korea currently stands at approximately 23.5 million.  The population of Iraq at the time the US invaded in 2003 was approximately 25 million.[4] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly five million people were displaced from their homes as a result of the Iraq conflict, roughly 2.2 million of which spilled over the Iraq border into neighboring countries.  The Iraqi refugee crisis, which is still far from being resolved, has created major economic and security problems for the countries surrounding Iraq.  Insufficient shelter, lack of access to education for young refugees and the corresponding lack of opportunities for employment have created the conditions for what one analyst closely associated with the dilemma calls “a lost generation.”[5] This effect has already begun in Northeast China, where some 300,000 North Korean refugees are estimated to exist[6]; due to the “ambiguous status” of Koreans in this region, they have established a reputation for “participating in the criminal underworld.”[7] In addition to being a strain on the economic resources of the host countries, this lost generation of refugees presents a security problem as hundreds of thousands of poor, uneducated and unemployed young people are prime candidates to turn to unlawful activities and militancy.

Similarly, a regime changing conflict in North Korea could result in not just thousands, but millions of refugees spilling into China.  Some researchers believe that China would probably bear the majority (perhaps even the vast majority) of refugees in this scenario, as opposed to South Korea, due to “push-pull” factors that have created the conditions for mass migration to China,[8] along with South Korea’s hesitance to accept refugees (for much the same reason China sees them as problematic).  It is perhaps not a coincidence that China stepped up its efforts to persuade North Korea and the US to negotiate following the Iraq invasion and resulting refugee crisis.

In addition to creating economic and security difficulties in terms of crime on the ground, refugees can create large political problems for host governments.  Moore (2008) compares a hypothetical influx of refugees following a North Korean conflict to the problems Yugoslavia dealt with relating to Albanians in Kosovo.  That is, that they might stir a sentiment of nationalism among their countrymen in Northeast China, take part in labor movements, and generally create problems for the government aggravated by their likely poor living conditions and unemployment.  In addition, “migrants are likely to create tensions among segments of the host society that are in greatest competition with them, creating net winners and losers.”[9]

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Why Couldn’t China Just Build a Fence?

Why China couldn’t treat the problem as the US treats its own issues with Mexican immigrants, i.e. by building a large fence and beefing up the Chinese military presence along the Korean border?  Looking at the history of the PRC—DPRK relationship sheds light on why treating the problem in this way would be politically problematic.

First of all, preventing refugees from crossing the Chinese border and then repatriating those who do has proven to be a messy affair under normal circumstances.  While there was a time when North Koreans were allowed to cross the border to visit their families in China and vice versa, since the North Korean famine of the late 90’s which resulted in hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing into China, the Chinese government no longer allows free cross-border traffic.  In fact, it has greatly increased its efforts to prevent refugees from entering, which has created ugly confrontations along the Korean border.  Since repatriation to North Korea typically results in severe punishment or death, cross border migrants sometimes go to great lengths to avoid being deported.  The families of the refugees, many of whom are ethnic North Koreans living in Jilin province and their descendants sometimes cause difficult confrontations when Chinese authorities come to repatriate their family members.  A wave of media stories describing the beatings, prison labor sentences and executions of North Korean defectors upon their return aroused both international and domestic concern.[10]

Korean refugees crossing the Chinese border have nothing to lose.  At the height of the famine in the 1990s, “[r]eports of desperation behavior, including foraging for wild plants, tree bark, or anything else that might be edible, the selling of family members into servitude for food, and even isolated instances of cannibalism [were] simply too widespread and too specific to be dismissed.”[11] Now consider what might happen if not just thousands, but millions of desperate refugees tried to cross the border at once.  Keeping them out of the country would be a very messy affair.

A looming humanitarian crisis is certainly not China’s only interest in doing whatever it can to prevent Pyongyang from collapsing.  But it is a valid piece to the puzzle; if the US and the other parties in the six party talks clearly understand this concern, they will better understand China’s seemingly paradoxical need to both discourage North Korea from obtaining nuclear technology and at the same time ensure that North Korea remains stable.  As Moore (2008) puts it, China “would rather see an orderly economic reform and power transition in Pyongyang than a dramatic and potentially cataclysmic change of regimes.”[12]

[1] See, i.e., Gregory, J. Moore (2008). “How North Korea threatens China’s interests: Understanding Chinese ‘duplicity’ on the North Korean nuclear issue,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 8:1, p. 7

[2] See John S. Park’s discussion of China’s pursuit of a xiaokang society, “wherein a majority of the Chinese population is middle class,” and yet is not purely material in nature: Park, John S. (2005). “Inside Multilateralism: The Six-Party Talks.” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 28:4, pp. 75-91
[3] Park (2005), p. 82
[4] CIA World Fact Book
[5] Interview with C. Eduardo Vargas of Intersections International (a New York-based NGO working with Iraqi refugees), March 1, 2010
[6] Moore (2008), Supra, p. 16
[7] Ibid, p. 17
[8] Andrei Lankov (2004), discusses the circumstances required for a mass migration.  There must be elements driving refugees from the country of origin toward the destination country (the “push factor”) and “pull” factors from the destination country.  Due to the estimated two million Koreans living in Manchuria and 300,000 refugees already there, there are strong incentives for new North Korean refugees to go to Northeast China.  Lankov, Andrei (2004). “North Korean Refugees in Northeast China.” Asian Survey, Vol. 44:6, pp. 856-873
[9] Salehyan, Idean and Kristian Skrede  Gleditsch (2006). “Refugees and the Spread of Civil War.” International Organization. 60:2, pp. 335-366
[10] Ibid.
[11] Snyder, Scott (1997). “North Korea’s Decline and China’s Strategic Dilemmas.”  United States Institute of Peace Special Report No. 27.  Access at: http://www.usip.org/resources/north-koreas-decline-and-chinas-strategic-dilemmas
[12] p. 19

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