It Had to Happen: China Finally Gets Tough on North Korea

It Had to Happen: China Finally Gets Tough on North Korea

By David Slinn

China was always going to get tough with Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea. It wasn’t a question of whether, but when.

North Korea is supposed to be China’s buffer against South Korea and the US. Until DPRK started its nuclear tests, the deal was simple: reasonably good behaviour from Pyongyang in return for a reliable flow of regime-saving aid from Beijing.

Pyongyang has torn up that script. Their pursuit of a nuclear capability is upsetting the imperfect but enduring security balance in northeast Asia, and China is anxious about where it will lead.

Beijing’s increasing irritation has been apparent, as has its dilemma over how to handle Pyongyang. It does not want a nuclear North Korea but neither does it want to risk triggering regime collapse or jeopardize regional stability.

I had expected China to show its displeasure through increasingly tough, bilateral measures. But Beijing has chosen a more radical path, supporting a UN Security Council Resolution containing one of the toughest UN sanctions regimes ever adopted.

China’s endorsement of the UNSCR is a serious signal to Kim Jong Un, a public humiliation highlighting how badly he has misjudged his own importance to Beijing. China’s support for such stringent measures has subtly but significantly tilted the international balance on North Korea. North Korea may turn to Russia for help, but Moscow’s support for Pyongyang came to an abrupt halt in 1990. Russia may be able to offer some token help, but it is Beijing’s reaction that everybody will be watching.

The vigour with which Beijing implements this new Resolution, and therefore the gravity of the consequences for Kim Jong Un, is no doubt linked to how Kim behaves in the future, a message that will no doubt be clearly conveyed bilaterally to Pyongyang. With such a threat looming over him, Kim is going to have to get better at heeding advice from Beijing.

That might not be easy. Sitting holed up in Pyongyang refusing to meet even international leaders prepared to help, as Kim has been doing, does not suggest somebody with a good grasp of North Korea’s strategic significance.

If Kim has problems externally, he also has serious internal challenges. Holding the modern North Korea together is a daunting task, and Kim Jong Un is not exuding confidence. The tighter internal security regime suggests doubts, even paranoia, about the loyalty of his inner circle. Rule through purge and execution might work in the short-term, but the enemies he must be making will eventually come looking for revenge. Not a good scenario for somebody so young who aspires to at least two generations in power.

Kim Jong Un’s dual objective of nuclear weapons and economic development looks increasingly fanciful. He may be delivering modest economic growth (albeit from a very low baseline), but the longer-term prospects are not good. Society runs on corruption and bribes in a way that was unthinkable 10 years ago. The economy may limp along for some time on this basis, but North Korea is neither big nor open enough to attract the Foreign Direct Investment required for sustained economic growth. New tighter sanctions, both through the UN Resolution and the US bilaterally, not to mention the regime’s appalling treatment of previous investors, make it look even less attractive.

For Kim, the stakes are high. The new, politically well-connected elite on whom Kim relies to provide the cash to keep the system afloat may question his mishandling of North Korea’s most important bilateral relationship. After all, their personal wealth is also tied up in that relationship.

The international community’s primary aim is the denuclearization of North Korea. If Kim Jong Un becomes more responsive to Chinese concerns, he can no doubt retain Beijing’s support and carry on. But if he chooses, or is forced for internal reasons, to maintain his confrontational path, implementation of these sanctions make other scenarios possible — even regime collapse or a coup. Such scenarios involve risk, but China now seems more prepared to accept that risk than the alternative of Kim Jong Un destabilizing the region.

The US should now engage China quietly over how to handle the next phase of the North Korea challenge. Such engagement can work to manage any North Korean reaction and also oversee the implementation of the complex measures laid down in the UNSCR. Such a forum could also quietly discuss options for the future of the Korean peninsula for which there are no simple solutions. The inclusion at some stage of South Korea and Japan too would be a sensible step.

“Kim Jong Un has only been in power four years,” somebody well connected in the region told me recently. “It is still far too early to know how it will work out for him.’’

China’s support for the new UN Security Council Resolution suggests that Beijing too has not yet come to a definitive view.

David Slinn is a CIPS Senior Associate for 2015–2016. An international diplomat and strategist, he has worked on some of the world’s most challenging files, from North Korea to Kosovo, Afghanistan to Croatia. See his full bio here:


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