Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

24 November, 2010

North Korea & the China Connection

By Aaron
24 November, 2010

Following my post yesterday, I received several emails asking why China doesn't do more to encourage better behavior by the North Koreans. Certainly, North Korea owes its survival - both economically and, by extension, politically - to Chinese largesse, and China thus has more influence over North Korea than does anyone else. Why, then, doesn't China do more to put the kibosh on North Korea's deadly tantrums, such as those witnessed this year?

Briefly, despite being a chronic headache for China's leaders, the presence of North Korea offers at least four distinct advantages (no doubt there are additional benefits, and readers are welcome to suggest them in the comments). Each of these considerations, at root, stems from a desire to avoid regime collapse in North Korea and the regional chaos that would ensue.

First, North Korea provides a buffer between China and South Korea. China does not appear keen to have either a vibrant, liberal democracy, or a reliable ally of the United States on its border and South Korea - and, in all likelihood, a reunified Korea - is both. Presumably, a reunified Korea would no longer need U.S. troops, but just how much does China trust that the United States would willingly pack up and go home?

Second, as the United States seems determined to maintain its own sphere of influence in East Asia (historically China's turf), North Korea serves to keep U.S. forces tied down and occupied. To the best of my knowledge, South Korea-based U.S. forces can only be used in the event of an inter-Korean conflict - i.e. the United States could not, under current conditions, use its bases in South Korea in the event of a China-Taiwan conflict.

Third, any renewal of Korean conflict would likely send hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of North Koreans streaming into China, where as many as 400,000 (or as few as 11,000, depending on your source) North Korean refugees already reside. China can easily live without an influx of hungry, ill-educated bumpkins from across the Yalu and Tumen rivers.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, the largest population of ethnic Koreans living outside of the Koreas resides in China, mostly in the area just across the border from North Korea. One of China's challenges in recent decades has been to prevent secessionist movements in places such as Tibet and the Uighur west. Less discussed, however, is the population of Yanbian Prefecture (see my crude map above), the population of which is approximately 40% ethnic Korean. In the event of reunification, these folks might latch onto nationalist ideas of their own - a thought which has surely crossed China's mind.

It's fine to argue, as William Pesek does today, that to become a responsible global citizen, China must "dock [Kim Jong-il's] allowance and restore some sobriety to the Korean Peninsula," but this ignores China's very real, and entirely understandable (if not symapthetic), concerns. As I wrote yesterday, North Korea is a pain in the ass for just about everyone, including the Chinese. For China, however, such an irritation is better than any other alternative currently on offer.

Note: For more on China's role on the Korean peninsula, I recommend this generally strong - and very readable - 2003 paper by David Shambaugh.