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Pyongyang and Beijing: A tale of two cities

By Ted Terpstra
On March 11, 2014

Whenever North Korea brazenly commits a provocative act, such as the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, many in the US and Europe then publicly call for additional pressure on China to control North Korea's behavior. Now, with the rise of Kim Jong-un, Chinese influence upon the North Korean state is at an all-time low. China, seen as North Korea's only ally, has recently become further isolated from the inner circle of North Korean leadership in Pyongyang.
About a year after Kim Jong-Un came to power in late 2011, a rocket was launched off of the North Korean coast alarming not only the US, South Korea and Japan, but China as well. In order to calm Beijing, Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong-un's uncle and a top military leader, was sent to meet the Chinese leadership. Jang Song Thaek had close relations with China, North Korea's largest supplier of aid, which made it all the more surprising when Kim Jong-un arranged his execution late last year. Also executed were Lee Yong-ha and Jang Soo-kee, two allies of Jang Song Thaek. Ji Jae-ryong, the current North Korean ambassador to China, is also coming under scrutiny and is expected to be arrested later this year. While some analysts believe that the execution of Jang Song Thaek was the result of a power struggle in North Korea, the internal purge has eliminated key members of the North Korean leadership who had close connections with China. The executions have worried Beijing, who viewed Jang Song Thaek as the more reasonable and mature advisor to the younger and less predictable Kim Jong-un.
The loss of Jang Song Thaek is only the most recent development in a tumultuous period of Chinese-North Korean relations. Over the past few years China has repeatedly warned North Korea to halt nuclear testing, but North Korea still continues to test its weapons as recently as last February. China is increasingly frustrated with North Korean nuclear provocations and has publicly said that "war or instability" on the Korean peninsula would not be allowed while simultaneously calling for the denuclearization of North Korea. Last week, a North Korean rocket launch came dangerously close to a Chinese airliner that was passing through the same airspace, reminding China how dangerous North Korea's brinkmanship was. Despite the recent North Korean actions, China is hesitant to use its leverage against the North Korean leadership out of fear that such action could lead to a collapse of the regime. A collapse would mean hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into China, a humanitarian crisis that Beijing does not want to deal with. China would also lose North Korea as a buffer state between US-ally South Korea and the Chinese border, a strategic loss that Beijing is not yet willing to bear. Now the tides are turning, and for Beijing, the costs of supporting North Korea's action are starting to outweigh the benefits provided by North Korea's continued existence.
China and the US actually share similar interests when it comes to containing North Korea. The North Korean nuclear program could pressure South Korea and Japan to divert more attention towards starting nuclear weapons programs, then launching a nuclear arms race in Asia. China does not want more nuclear armed states, and the US has spent a long time preventing nuclear proliferation. An open war between North and South Korea could draw in both China and the US, igniting a larger conflict that both major nations wish to avoid. Politically, North Korea embarrasses China by rejecting negotiations and behaving in a belligerent manner. There are now better incentives for China to collaborate with the US than in previous years.
The alliance between North Korea and China is still very much alive, despite their differences. Bilateral trade the two nations continue to grow. Pyongyang still occasionally attempts to stay favorable in China's eyes, a sign that North Korea does not intend to end its friendship with its northern neighbor. Regardless, China recognizes that North Korea is a terrible ally, both bellicose and stubborn. Continually China is forced to defend North Korea's brutal torture practices from organizations such as the UN, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, a costly action that damages China's reputation abroad. Ultimately a peaceful resolution to the situation in the Korean peninsula will be the litmus test to determine whether China can be a formidable world power.  

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