Despite Risks, China Stays at North Korea’s Side to Keep the U.S. at Bay
By JANE PERLEZ, BEIJING (NY Times): Even though North Korea ignored China’s appeal not to test its new longer-range missile, the new leadership here appears intent on remaining a steadfast supporter of its wayward neighbor because it considers the North a necessary buffer against the United States and its allies.
Analysts said that China’s overriding fear was of a collapse of the hard-line Communist government in Pyongyang, which could lead to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under a government in Seoul allied with the United States. China, they said, would consider an American presence on its doorstep untenable.
But China’s unyielding support of Kim Jong-un has a serious downside, they added, because it may lead to a result nearly as unpalatable: efforts by the United States and its regional allies Japan and South Korea to contain China.
“It stirs up regional security,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University who favors reducing support for North Korea. Without naming the United States, he added that the missile launching “facilitates China-bashers to work on hard-line policies to contain China, or just balance China.”
Obama administration officials were clearly exasperated this week with China’s inability to rein in Mr. Kim, saying that they were considering a stronger military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Beneath the official tolerance of North Korea, a debate about the wisdom of remaining loyal to such a world outlier and its defiant young leader simmers among analysts who strive to influence China’s foreign policy.
China runs the risk, Dr. Zhu said, of being bunched together with North Korea as one of “the two bad guys.”
“I feel very frustrated,” Dr. Zhu added. “At least we should distance ourselves from North Korea. The reality is, as long as North Korea can’t change their behavior, then peace and stability on the peninsula will be increasingly vulnerable.”
China has twice asked Mr. Kim, who inherited the leadership of North Korea after the death of his father at the end of last year, not to proceed with missile tests, and twice he has rebuffed the entreaties. Shortly after he came to power, a Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, Fu Ying, visited Pyongyang to warn him not to conduct a test. In April, Mr. Kim went ahead anyway with a rocket launching, which fizzled. Last month, Li Jianguo, a member of the Politburo, visited North Korea to again urge restraint.
Despite their displeasure, China’s leaders see little choice but to put up with such indignities.
The slight pique expressed by the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday was not a signal that China would alter its course, the analysts said, or back tougher sanctions at the United Nations.
The official reaction was “very hesitant,” said Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
After the missile test, Washington immediately started pushing for deeper sanctions at the United Nations and for a tightening of existing sanctions that China agreed to after earlier rocket launchings.
“China will not support a resolution; it will favor a president’s statement,” said Cai Jian, the deputy director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. A president’s statement at the United Nations is considered a much weaker form of condemnation than sanctions.
A major reason for not backing new sanctions is the fear that they would provoke North Korea to test another nuclear weapon, a far worse prospect than the launching of an unarmed rocket like the one on Wednesday, said Jonathan D. Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“The North Koreans demurred from a third nuclear test in April, very likely under major Chinese pressure,” Dr. Pollack said.
In 2006 and 2009, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon soon after launching missiles. Dr. Pollack said a repeat of that action would pose a major test to the Obama administration, as well as to the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.
“Pyongyang may have decided now is the time to put down a major marker as Obama’s second term approaches and as South Korea elects a new president,” he said.
Beyond the hard strategic questions for the new Chinese leadership, the concerns among ordinary Chinese about why China bankrolls such a ruthless government should be considered, several Chinese analysts said.
“Internally in China, many voices are questioning all this spending on rocket launches instead of on improving people’s livelihoods,” said Jia Qingguo, an expert at Peking University.
The South Korean government recently estimated that North Korea had spent $2.8 billion to $3.2 billion since 1998 on its missile program, said Stephan M. Haggard, a professor of Korea-Pacific studies at the University of California, San Diego. That amount of money would have bought enough corn to feed the country for about three years, Dr. Haggard said.
The debate within China about its relationship with North Korea stems from the unusual nature of the alliance. Fundamentally, the two governments do not like each other and harbor deep mutual suspicions, said Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the China and Northeast Asia project director of the International Crisis Group in Beijing. When North Korean officials visited Singapore this year to get new ideas for Mr. Kim’s government, leaders in Beijing — who have sent teams of their own to Singapore to study its softer form of one-party leadership — became very nervous, she said.
The larger fear is that any fundamental change in North Korea could send waves of refugees into China, who would be considerably more difficult to absorb than people of other nationalities on China’s borders.
“For the Chinese,” Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt said, “there are fewer problems keeping North Korea the way it is than having a collapse.”