Within hours of North Korea’s January 6 nuclear test, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea picked up the phone and called President Barack Obama in the White House and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo to discuss a joint response to Pyongyang’s latest nuclear gambit. Both leaders gave President Park unequivocal and resolute support for taking retaliatory action. Meanwhile, defense ministers and top foreign affairs officials of the three nations also held urgent telephone conferences to coordinate responses.
Within days, the U.S. began to dispatch strategic assets to South Korea, including B-52 strategic bomber patrols capable of carrying 4 H-bombs, and the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear dust collecting sniffer, the WC-135W Constant Phoenix. Other operational agreements were also quickly reached, including the decision to hold a joint U.S.-ROK nuclear bomb and missile prevention and destruction drill scheduled for March.
Also within hours, the usually divisive Japanese parliament passed a unanimous, strongly worded resolution condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear test. Prime Minister Abe has been assiduously taking the lead in lobbying the U.N. for a new round of condemnations and sanctions against Pyongyang.
Known for being unprecedentedly cozy with the Chinese leadership, President Park also made a similar effort simultaneously to contact President Xi Jinping of China.
But Mr. Xi did not take President Park’s call, nor did China respond to Seoul’s request for a telephone call on the North Korea situation between the defense ministers of China and South Korea.
This episode illustrates China’s strategic ambivalence and geopolitical calculations with regard to the North Korean regime in general and Pyongyang’s nuclear gambit in particular that cast a sharp contrast to the basic policies and strategic objectives of the American-led collective defense alliance of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea.
First of all, despite the relatively minor spats over such things as the repertoire of singers and dancers, China and North Korea enjoy a political symbiosis as communist states, although varying in ideological intensity. As the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, editorialized on December 11 that “Friendly ties with China have provided a crucial external support for the nation’s long-term stability. It is impossible for a clean break to happen between [the PRC and the DPRK], and this is becoming increasingly clear.”
On a relatively constant basis, China provides, by many estimates, some 80 percent of North Korea’s basic supplies of food and oil; Beijing also delivers continuous political protection at international venues such as the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Security Council.
There is realpolitik utility too in prolonging the Kim dynasty. Notoriously brutal and totalitarian, the Pyongyang regime is taking a bullet for Beijing as the lead bad actor in the arena. As long as North Korea is regarded as the worst nightmarish pariah state in the region, China, despite its own political excesses and rights abuses, does not look half as bad, thus shielding Beijing’s autocrats from bearing the brunt of international criticism and sanctions, and becoming the primary and open target of the West’s strategic calculations.
In fact, China’s close ties with North Korea has further increased Beijing’s bargaining chip as the ultimate deal-maker and influencer to solve Pyongyang’s nuclear issue. The moment the Pyongyang regime collapses, that leverage will cease to exist for China.
Since 1962 when a bilateral border agreement was signed, Pyongyang’s existential dependency on Beijing has also made the 880-mile PRC-DPRK border a rare trouble-free section of China’s otherwise nightmarish, often disputed, boundary with most of its neighbors. If North Korea collapses, the economically far more powerful and politically more stable, culturally more appealing, demographically more populous South Korea will likely absorb the North and form a unified Korea. That will not bode well for China because Seoul does not recognize various border agreements in the 1962 Beijing-Pyongyang boundary treaty. Old and almost guaranteed to be contentious, territorial wounds such as Baektu and Gando between a unified Korea and China will likely unleash powerful Korean nationalism against the old Middle Kingdom with a long tributary and imperial attitude toward the Koreans.
A divided Korean Peninsula serves China’s strategic calculation in another way too—Beijing’s security elites consider the U.S. as China’s ultimate adversary and it is believed that one of the easiest paths to enter China’s strategic depth is through the Korean Peninsula where there are 28 thousand U.S. troops on the ground, with powerful re-enforcement from nearby Okinawa and Guam, and the Japanese mainland. In other words, North Korea is China’s strategic buffer state that functions as a shield as well as a client.
But there is a problem: a client must be obedient. When the client actively invites U.S. military intervention, thus demolishing the useful buffer zone, by repeatedly testing nuclear bombs, with which to at least cinematographically blast the White House and New York City, the Big Brother in Beijing wants Pyongyang to cool down, with increasing Sinic hauteur toward the young Kim in Pyongyang. Hence China’s current displeasure with Kim’s nuclear tests.
Curiously, China performed exactly the same act in the mid-1950s, as Kim is doing now, when China’s own Big Brother at the time, the Soviet Union, tried to thwart Mao Zedong’s own nuclear weapons ambition and his belligerent crank provocations in places like Quemoy and Matsu.
History goes in cycles.