The current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, is third in a line of totalitarian leaders which began with his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. North Korea is a Stalinist Communist state infamous for its pugnacious saber-rattling, its isolation from the rest of the world, and its undeterred development of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has carried out nuclear tests since 2011, when Kim Jong-un ascended into power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. Many feel that all of North Korea’s weapons testing is simply a ploy designed to provoke the United States, leading to negotiations through which the country can elicit support. However, the combination of the increase in tensions between North Korea, Japan, and the West, along with the displays of North Korea’s nuclear advancements has generated new cause for concern.
South Korea has endured Pyongyang’s provocations and belligerent rhetoric for decades, but the threat of a nuclear attack has never been greater. In early August of 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously ratified strict sanctions on North Korean exports reported to potentially cost the country $1 billion of annual income. Since that time, the Trump administration has exchanged bold threats with Pyongyang, resulting in North Korea’s latest claim of a plan to attack the United States’ territory of Guam. In August and September of 2017, Pyongyang launched two separate intermediate-range missiles over Japan, prompting harsh criticism from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Despite the unpopularity of its relationship with its neighbor, China keeps North Korea running with oil shipments and accounts for more than ninety percent of its total trade volume. In fact, Beijing’s support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, when Chinese troops poured into the Korean Peninsula to stymie America’s northern advance. Since the war, China has continued providing political and economic backing to North Korea.
Beijing has largely resisted calls among United Nations member-states to impose punishing sanctions on North Korea. To be clear, China has approved some sanctions against its neighbor and has used critical rhetoric towards Pyongyang at times. However, it is apparent these actions are representative of China’s attempts to play both sides rather than real disapproval of North Korea’s actions, because of the continued economic ties between the two countries. Trade between the two countries has steadily grown in recent years, estimated to have increased tenfold between 2000 and 2015.
China’s primary reason for its support of Pyongyang is to prevent a unified and stable Korean Peninsula providing a stronger foothold for American influence in the region. Such an outcome would seriously frustrate China’s ambitions for supremacy in Asia. Its support for North Korea ensures a buffer between China and the democratic South, which holds approximately twenty-nine thousand American military personnel. Beijing is also wary of the potential refugee crisis conflict in the Korean Peninsula could cause, and the destabilizing effects such an exodus would have in China’s economically weak northeast.
The Chinese government’s continued relationship with North Korea may now be threatening Chinese influence in Asia more than ever. In particular, China’s desire to foster stronger ties with Seoul has endured significant erosion. While the United States and other regional and Western powers continue to push for Pyongyang to hand over its nuclear weapons, the fact that Beijing prioritizes supporting the status quo in the Korean Peninsula over denuclearization has only become clearer.
Although China has shown recent signs of toughening its position on Pyongyang, it is widely accepted that China cannot resolve the North Korea problem alone. In any case, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are becoming increasingly problematic for Beijing’s goals of maintaining the stability of and increasing its influence in the region. Among the United States, China, and other regional and Western powers, competing ideologies regarding the North Korean puzzle are legion while realistic solutions are few. One point on which most participants likely agree, however, is that the President of the United States’ recent warning that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will” does little to foster confidence in any eventual resolution.
Written By Jesse Glenn
Publications Editor for the South Carolina Journal of International Law and Business, Volume 14
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