Why does China tolerate North Korea’s extraordinary behaviour? The relationship is a highly unusual one – not based on love and friendship but on cold calculation.
Beijing has agreed to support US moves at the UN to place sanctions on North Korea but the world is puzzled by its seeming reluctance to follow Washington’s lead with any great enthusiasm. China’s relationship with North Korea was supportive during the Korean War (1950-53) because of mutual interest in opposing the American presence. However there are disagreements about the border; China occupies part of Baekdu-san, the sacred mountain on the present China-North Korean border. Chinese and North Koreans both feel that parts of the Tumen river delta are wrongly occupied.
Last year 28 Chinese fishermen were kidnapped in Chinese waters, beaten and robbed by what were described as uniformed North Korean sailors, apparently not the first such incident. The North has a racialist view about the purity and superiority of the Korean race – interracial liaisons can even lead to forcible abortions and imprisonment.
Frequent descriptions of North Korea’s nuclear tactics as ‘crazy’ and ‘deranged’ miss the point that they actually represent a rational use of the limited cards in the hands of a regime which presides over tens of millions of malnourished and miserable people and is desperate not to fall.
Beijing is not pleased to have a volatile and nuclear-armed neighbour issuing threats and firing missiles, not least because the deteriorating situation has led to an influx of US military planes and naval ships being deployed to the Korean peninsula.
However, China has certain clear interests. The first is that it went to war in the 1950s to ensure that the US did not dominate its borders. If North Korea collapses, America’s South Korean-based troops could be on China’s frontier.
Second, the disparity in GDP per capita across the intra-Korean frontier – if we can believe the northern numbers – is 20:1. This is double that between Spain and Morocco at 10:1, which causes huge illegal migration.
In the event of a North Korean collapse, China does not want millions of North Korean refugees endangering its domestic stability. It already has two million ethnic Koreans living within its borders. The North Korean population today is estimated at 24m – 50% more than that of East Germany when it collapsed.
Neighbourhood bad boy
Third, it is useful for Beijing to have a clear neighbourhood ‘bad boy’. Pyongyang fulfils this role with aplomb, offering the dual advantage of distracting Washington from criticising China through its egregiously unpopular activity whilst allowing China to assume a leadership position in the multinational group discussing the North Korea problem.
Moreover, population density is perhaps particularly important in the North-east Asian region where, historically, borders have been mobile. It is scarcely 150 years since today’s Vladivostok was – like China – under the Manchu empire. The empty Far East of Russia is of increasing interest to highly populated China. The Russian Far East has 2.7 inhabitants per square mile compared to 365 per square mile in China. However, a United Korea would have 847 per square mile. After 2025, it would have two-thirds of the population of all Russia.
A future United Korea would have 70m citizens, a potentially successful economy, low labour costs, high population density, a strongly nationalist mentality – and nuclear weapons. Here China’s reservations are echoed by Japan, which faces steady demographic decline and harsh attacks from South Korea for its wartime behaviour.
A united Korean state is likely to be led by the Southern elite: we only have to consider the likely large mental health bill in the north and the fact that North Koreans are on average three inches shorter than southerners. In an international survey last year, South Korea was the most anti-Chinese country that was polled. Almost two-thirds of respondents held a negative view about China’s global influence.
The South has been planning a space mission, is building up its armaments and is increasing the range of its missiles to 500 miles. It has had repeated confrontations between its coast guard and Chinese fishing vessels; over 800 Chinese fishermen have been arrested and more than 2,600 boats seized since 2006.
Beijing’s long-standing support for North Korea has nothing to do with sharing a common ideology – they don’t – but it has everything to do with protecting China’s national interests.
It is not surprising that the potential collapse of the North Korean government represents an increase in stability for Washington but a decrease in stability for Beijing, Russia – and even for Japan. The way a northern regime collapse is seen largely explains the behaviour of the players in this Korean crisis.
(A version of this article appeared in the Financial Times on 24 April 2013)