NORTH KOREA’S LATEST nuclear test further undermines the argument that only Beijing can rein in Pyongyang but won’t do so. China’s ability to direct Kim Jong Un is diminishing as quickly as it is losing patience with his regime.
It is not alone in that. Kim has shown himself to be undeterred by international sanctions against his rapidly progressing nuclear programme — to which the latest and harshest Beijing has signed up.
China wants stability in the region and a buffer it can rely on between it and U.S.-aligned South Korea. Kim’s hell-for-leather pursuit of nuclear arms makes the region less not more stable, and Kim feels that he can disregard China’s national security interests with impunity for as long as U.S.-China relations are tense.
He felt sufficiently secure of his position to test fire three ballistic missiles during the G20 summit that China was hosting in Hangzhou at the start of this month, much to the fury of Beijing which was otherwise basking in playing the role of world leader and was notified of the test through back channels only a few hours in advance.
For a long time, Pyongyang’s unpredictability has been supported by Beijing as a way to keep Washington on the back foot in the region. Now that is outweighed by the risk to Beijing that a nuclear-armed North Korea would lead to a nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan, and that being the sole ally to an archaic remnant of the Cold War only undercuts China’s international standing as a modern world power.
So Beijing’s calculus is changing. Its endorsement of the tough UN sanctions passed in March following Pyongyang’s previous nuclear test was a sign of that. Beijing had been lukewarm to previous sanctions rounds, and uneven in their enforcement. Even though that was a stance to which it seemed to be returning after South Korea decided in July to deploy the United States’ THAAD anti-missile system that China sees directed more at it than North Korea, Beijing’s condemnation of the latest nuclear test was harsh.
However, if, as seems the case, Kim is using his pursuit of making North Korea a nuclear state central to cement his dynastic legitimacy, then halting nuclearisation can only come from regime change. Sticks and carrots from China, or the international community more broadly, will not induce a change of course on Kim’s part. They have certainly not shown any sign to date that they will.
Regime change in North Korea will most likely come from economic collapse that causes elites to contest diminishing economic resources. That shows no sign of happening soon of its own accord.
China could precipitate it. North Korea is dependent on imports from China of energy and food, so Beijing has the means to act.
But engineering economic collapse is the ‘nuclear option’, so to speak. It would bring a large-scale influx of refugees into northeastern China. Beijing has contingency plans for dealing with that eventuality (they were leaked to Japanese media in 2014), just as South Korea does.
What is not known is what preparations China is making to take control of an imploded North in what would be a scramble to beat the United States and South Korea in the rush to provide humanitarian aid and security for the peninsula as a whole in the name of reunification.
South Korea does have contingency plans to move troops into the North fast. If they were to run into the Peoples’ Liberation Army forces coming in the opposite direction, North Korea could become as chaotic as the Middle East, especially if remnants of Kim’s regime undertake guerrilla warfare, or China was to afford political protection to them.
In the meantime, Beijing is becoming as stymied as Washington in dealing with Pyongyang, and left scratching its head for a way to remove the Kim dynasty that throws the North into neither chaos nor the hands of the South. That it is saying publicly that it is the responsibility of the United States not itself to solve the problem, is a sign of how far from a Plan B it is.