Beijing’s Buffer

‘North Korea is a vital buffer for the Chinese to counter the heavy US presence in Japan and South Korea…The idea that Beijing might rein in Pyongyang is a Western illusion’

China International

The year began and ended with North Korea in the news. In March, North Korea torpedoed the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. In November, the world learned of the existence of a North Korean uranium enrichment plant, indicating that it had another route to a nuclear bomb, other than the existing plutonium-based method. Next, North Korean troops shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two civilians and two marines, allegedly by way of warning about military exercises by its neighbour. At a rally in Seoul, coinciding with the funerals of the marines, veterans cried: “It’s time for action. Time for retaliation. Let’s hit the presidential palace in Pyongyang.” This public mood has led the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to abandon his predecessor’s Sunshine Policy of accommodation and absorbing North Korean attacks in favour of dire warnings of retaliation. The arrival of the US nuclear carrier group USS George Washington in Korean waters for “high-intensity” war games, with more scheduled off Japan, further underlines the gravity of the current crisis. It seems likely that the ailing Kim Jong-il is deliberately ratcheting up the tension in order to extort both more aid and to secure the smooth succession of his son Kim Jong-un. 

The latest crisis has coincided with the Wikileaks revelations of what a few Chinese officials had said about their North Korean ally, the erratic “spoiled child” of Pyongyang. These leaks led to intense speculation that a new generation of Chinese leaders was prepared to ditch Kim Jong-il’s regime, if the price was right. Beijing was said to have two major concerns: the prospect of North Korean refugees burdening China should the regime implode, and the US extending its armed presence from the DMZ (the de facto birder between North and South) to the Yalu River, still a live concern 65 years after Chinese intervention in the Korean War. 

In the event of future reunification, South Korean officials assured Beijing that no US forces would be stationed north of the DMZ, and that China would be granted extensive mining rights in northern Korea in return for cutting loose the Kims.

There are several flaws in what would otherwise have been a momentous shift in Chinese policy. The Chinese Foreign Ministry is not a major centre of power in Beijing. Its minister is not even a member of the Politburo. The mid-level diplomat whose indiscretions so warmed the hearts of those seeking the Pyongyang regime’s doom is paid to do just that: to tell Westerners what they most want to hear. He even played to fellow feeling by regaling his US audience with colourful tales about Kim Jong-il’s drinking habits. Seoul speculation about the imminent demise of the Pyongyang regime is scarcely newsworthy either. 

North Korea is a vital buffer for the Chinese to counter the heavy US regional presence in Japan and South Korea. That is why 40 per cent of its foreign aid goes there, as well as 50,000 tonnes of oil per month. The idea that Beijing might use this aid to rein in Pyongyang is a Western illusion, since Chinese policy is posited on absolute respect for individual state sovereignty in which human rights play no role. Instead, Beijing takes an entirely instrumental view of Pyongyang’s dangerous incalculability, which serves to distract US attention from Taiwan, just as, in reverse, Eisenhower’s skilful bluff of involving Taiwan in the Korean War forced the Chinese to the negotiating table in 1953. China uses North Korea’s periodic bouts of insanity to gain leverage on other issues by advocating multilateral attempts to defuse each crisis, talks which promise more than they deliver in curbing North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, which is why the US refuses to get involved. 

The Chinese have also blocked access to Wikileaks for a further reason. They will not have appreciated revelations that North Korea shipped ballistic missile components to Tehran via Beijing, and especially the intelligence that Chinese officials, and their ambitious offspring, used bribes to acquire personal stakes in mineral mining operations in North Korea. This raises a wider concern. 

China is destined to be an enormously important global power in the near future. However, having abandoned its role as chief patron to national liberation movements, all it espouses as a guiding principle is ruthless defence of its access to food, oil and raw materials needed to cushion its burgeoning middle class, the indispensable precondition for continued Communist Party rule, allied with an entirely amoral pragmatism towards the external effects of the internal affairs of allies. In that sense, China will be different from the two evangelising superpowers of the 20th-century Cold War.