Why the U.S. Can’t Rely on China to turn on North Korea

A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. North Korea has readied a rocket for a launch from a forested valley in its remote northwest this week that will showcase the reclusive state's ability to fire a missile with the capacity to hit the continental United States. Picture taken April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) ORG XMIT: PYG17

Ever since the 1990s, the United States has seen leaders come and go who have tried to bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Today, the U.S., and the rest of the world for that matter, are not much closer. After multiple nuclear weapons tests and long-range missile launches that have more than raised an eyebrow from her neighbors, the most secretive country on the planet is still hellbent on fueling its nuclear-equipped armies.

But U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson believes that “It is clear a different approach is required.” While he is absolutely right, some analysts believe it’s not the one his inner circle is proposing. Tom Holland, who has written on Chinese affairs for 20 years, argued in a recent editorial that President Donald Trump is not totally right when he alleges North Korea is an “obedient client state of China,” and Tillerson may need to look elsewhere than hope China will take a stance to support tough economic sanctions on North Korea.

As Holland notes, North Korea doesn’t stand much to gain in that department. Today, China is by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner accounting for 90% of its foreign trade. Many believe China has been one of the only life lines keeping North Korea afloat economically. And severing those ties will cause it to sink underneath international pressure. But, China has been quite satisfied just doing business as usual. In fact, even after supporting U.N. sanctions to ban coal exports from North Korea, the country’s coal keeps getting past Chinese ports uninterrupted, according to South Korean reports.

Holland writes, “If Beijing were to rigorously sever these ties, it would very likely bring the North Korean economy – and Kim’s regime – to its knees. But China’s leaders have no appetite for such a drastic course of action.”

And at least based on what the South Korean government has on paper, China in 2015 alone bought $2.5 billion worth of North Korean exports, mostly coal and iron ore. Holland also points to these figures which show North Korea is running a trade deficit of anywhere from $500 million to $1.5 billion a year, suggesting it must have black market sources of trade since it can’t legally borrow international currency from most of the world.

The U.S. and her allies may need to search for other ways to cripple North Korea. But how long before this unstable government develops the ability and audacity to launch a nuclear armed missile into the continental United States or regional neighbors. If the past two decades have taught us anything, the timeline seems grim.

About Andrew Burke 145 Articles
Editor-in-Chief Andrew Burke is a lifelong aficionado of all things Chinese. He studied Mandarin while living in Taiwan for six years and now works as a digitization specialist at the Yenching Library, which specializes in Asian books and documents, at Harvard University where he also studies topics related to China, Chinese, Asia and foreign affairs.