From the distant vantage point of western countries, China and North Korea look much alike. They are neighbors, one-party dictatorships, former communist societies, and Korean War allies.
In short, practically bedfellows.
So whenever North Korea does something that alarms the international community, the call goes out for China to do something about it. Following the fourth and most recent North Korean nuclear test, the world is again appealing to China to rein in its troublesome neighbor.
North Korean provocations follow a script the actors know by heart. The play opens with an unpleasant North Korean surprise. China then assumes the role of the mature parent and calls on all parties to remain calm and resolve their differences through dialogue — although China is unable to resolve its own differences with North Korea through dialogue, as in the recent case of the sudden departure of the all-girl Moranbong band from Beijing.
If North Korea’s provocation is nuclear, the US, along with South Korea and Japan, once again vow never to tolerate a nuclear North Korea. North Korea basks in its renewed glory and insists that nuclear weapons are a necessary deterrent to American threats.
In Act 2, the US calls on China to use its undeniable economic leverage to tame its neighbor. China in turn denies having any special leverage and says that the US should stop threatening North Korea and open a dialogue. South Korea, Japan, and the US make a show of responding to North Korea by resorting to stop-gap measures such as resuming loudspeaker broadcasts into North Korea or flying a B-52 bomber over the Korean peninsula.
By the time the curtain rises on Act 3, the original provocation has been largely forgotten by the news media. Lengthy deliberations begin in the US, South Korea, Japan, the United Nations, and presumably in China to consider what additional sanctions are possible, although China and Russia will block any vigorous UN sanctions for fear of making the situation somehow worse. Just before the closing curtain, a few more sanctions are placed on North Korea, which has little trouble evading them through its usual connections with Chinese businesses.
This play seems likely to run for many more years unless North Korea’s military-first script is derailed by anti-regime domestic events, which are highly unlikely in the near term, by foreign military intervention in response to a particularly egregious North Korean military provocation, or by pressure from China, which virtually controls the North Korean economy.
What does China want?
But what does China really want? After decades of boasting that their friendship is as close as “lips and teeth,” China and North Korea still aren’t dreaming the same dream.
The North Korean dream, which is actually the dream of the Kim family because the country is run for their benefit, is that the international community will unconditionally accept the leadership of whichever Kim family member happens to be in power. China’s dream is for North Korea to transform itself into a Little China with a developed economy and a strong party-led government that is not necessarily headed by a member of the Kim family.
The most obvious reason North Korea can’t accept China’s dream is that it doesn’t necessarily include a Kim. Moreover, North Koreans don’t trust China any more than they trust any other country. As for the personal fortunes of Kim Jong-un, he is the third generation of a fabulously wealthy ruling family that faces no competition for power. Unless he is deprived of his wealth by China, he is unmotivated to make any significant changes.
For its part, China can’t accept the North Korean dream first because China can’t bring the international community to accept North Korea. Moreover, having a neighbor who is committed to a “military-first” policy is hardly a guarantee for long-term regional stability. And if that neighboring country must be led by a dictator, China would prefer that it be a Chinese-style “responsible” dictator rather than one of the unpredictable roguish dictators of the Kim family who have ruled North Korea, starting with the founding Kim who dragged China into a costly war.
The devil it knows …
So the dreams are only dreams, and China continues to live with the devil it knows rather than taking a chance on triggering instability that could beget an even bigger devil. And the US does the same, for its “strategic patience” policy toward North Korea favors a change in the regime over time rather than a forced change of the regime. China at least has the option of changing North Korea, something that the United States, with little direct influence over North Korea, seems unable to do.
And yet, the “American dream” is a great drawing card for people around the world, and could become a dream of the North Korean people if they became more familiar with it. US support for more active information campaigns targeted at the North Korean people, who may one day wrest control of their country from the Kim regime, would be a worthwhile and peaceful means of eventually replacing the North Korean dream with one that is less likely to turn into a nightmare for everyone.
Kongdan Oh is a senior Asian specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA).