What Exactly Is The Relationship Between China and North Korea?

There has been much talk over reports that, following the DPRK’s saber rattling, China now views North Korea as a spolit child. This terminology is instructive, and points as much to China’s raised perception of itself as anything else. A couple of years ago, a diplomatic spat flared between China and France, which is still to some extents ongoing to today. (Owing to this spat, French people have to wait much longer to get visas for China than most other nationals.) Recently there has been a rapprochement, and relationships have warmed slightly. This was reported in the Chinese press that Sarkozy was beginning to mature as a person, he is not as childish as before. This kind of news report could have been written 200 years ago, during the height of the Celestial Kingdom’s last failed dynasty’s reign. The people, who have more respect for their newly powerful country than previously, are informed by the leadership what the benchmark for behaviour is in the international arena; and emotive labels, such as immature and spoilt child are applied to those countries whose foreign policies fall short of Beijing’s increasingly stiff requirements.

Wikileaks this week has given us glimpses of how America interprets the relationship between the two. The content of the leaks reveals much about how little the Americans knows about the internal situation in North Korea compared to the Chinese. This first extract details the close relationships between the Chinese and North Korean elite:

According toXXXXXXXXXXXX, the children of high-ranking North Korean and Chinese officials hijack the most favorable investment and aid deals for their own enrichment. When the child of a high-ranking official hears of a Chinese aid proposal to North Korea, he will travel to North Korea to convince the relevant official to follow his instructions for implementing the aid project. He will then use his connections to request proposals from Chinese companies to develop the project, returning to North Korea to convince the relevant official to select the favored company. At each step, money changes hands, and the well-connected Chinese go-between pockets a tidy sum. For the offspring of officials in the DPRK, there are also ample opportunities to work in China.

It was something that we all suspected: cronyism is as rife in North Korea as it is in China, and palm greasing is the only way to get things done. This modus opperandum is possibly the most important factor in determining whether North Korea orbits China or another nation. Whilst cronyism exists in all other countries, the level of abuse in the East usually leaves the naive, trusting westerner gobsmacked; and his sense of fair play lying shattered on the floor.

Whilst this second extract suggests why China is increasingly viewing and reporting North Korea’s behaviour as that of a spoilt child:

According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, not only does Kim Jong-il decide to reverse policies on his own, but officials also chart their own course as different factions competing for Kim’s attention, making it difficult for Kim to set a firm, clear direction. Wary of China’s increasing hold on precious minerals and mining rights in the DPRK, many North Korean officials oppose mineral concessions as a means to attract Chinese investment.

North Korea, whilst still in China’s orbit, is not being as subservient as it once was. The leaders of both countries will be very aware of Korea’s traditional role as a Chinese client state; it is likely that the Korean leaders are not so enthusiastic about that aspect of history as the Chinese are.

For fifty years, a divided Korea suited China. The demilitarized zone clearly demarcated the edge of American military and economic influence in East Asia, as did the inability of either side to reunite China and Taiwan under a faction of their choosing. Korea has always been a buffer state, much like Czechoslovakia was, and Belgium too in Europe. America, mindful of the dangers of the spread of communism by what they termed the domino effect, went to great efforts to help rebuild the economies of Taiwan, Korea and Japan.

A much weaker, totalitarian North Korea much better suited the requirements of the leaders of Communist, totalitarian Moscow and Beijing, who were themselves struggling to make ends meet in their own vast respective countries. That way of thinking is now defunct, (and maybe even more so now that North Korea is becoming wary of further Chinese involvement in its industries), China and Russia have both implemented market reforms to varying degrees. “To get rich is beautiful” claimed Deng Xiaoping, and the oligarchs of both countries could not agree more.

To a large degree a divided and antagonistic Korea still benefits China. The perpetual low level threat of a fraternal war is one of the most effective ways to persuade hot money and more long term investors to flood in to China, rather than the perpetually unstable Korean peninsular; but actual war would be disastrous. China which has assumed the mantle of leader of the Developing World knows it would become entangled in any real hot conflict between the two Koreas, and its involvement would result in instability being exported to China itself. During the last Korean War, the Communist Party mananged to stay in power, even despite estimates of close to one million chinese casualties. Even if a new war did not result in many deaths, the potential impact on economic growth, investment, unemployment, and thus China’s internal stability is not worth risking.

The financial crisis combined with the hollowing out of industrial capacity has impoverished the West, perhaps for good. Western consumers suddenly no longer have the capacity to consume as they once did, meaning that there is now a huge over capacity of all kinds of products streaming from Chinese factories. Unless demand from the West can bounce back, in the short term the over supply heralds lower prices, and in the longe term more unemployment in China, a country that is already experiencing enough problems finding enough work for those just entering the job market.

A united Korea may therefore be the way forward. Cash flowing from the south to the north, hopefully rapidly developing urban areas and creating a higher demand base; combined with a chunky re-unification tax that should contribute to making Korean exports not quite as competitive as China’s.

There is another strand to this: the freedom of speech, the cronyism touched on earlier and the even application of the rule of law in China. Although all Chinese know that North Korea, is by and large, a good disciple, the emerging middle class are more aware of how standards of living there echo those of China during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, creating a satisfactory feeling of huge advances in relative prosperity and standards of living, including freedom of speech and many other freedoms besides. If, in the future a united Korea were to be more free than China, a regional power soaked in Confucian culture whose people had more control over their affairs than in neighbouring China, would negatively impact China’s internal stability; or at the very least, the happiness of its citizens.

For China, a divided Korea dominated by low level fraternal bickering is always the best option. A richer, unified Korea, although a highly unlikely prospect in the current political climate, which would provide a bigger market for Chinese goods, yet also burdened by the challenges of controlling two areas that have travelled down opposite paths in the last 60 years is also a good second best.

China’s aim is to ensure Korea’s subservience, that South Korea is still under America’s sway must be painful for the rulers of the former Celestial Kingdom with an eye on their legacy. Korea, along with Vietnam and Burma have been vassal states for huge swathes of history. Whichever leader can secure the return to the historical status quo may just gain his place in the pantheon of the greats.


6 thoughts on “What Exactly Is The Relationship Between China and North Korea?

  1. An interesting overview Locusts. The description of anyone as a recalcitrant child always conjures up the impression of an all-wise parent, an impetuous youthful hot-head, and the implication that the wayward offspring can ultimately be brought ‘to heel’.

    On the other hand, as we’ve often seen in neighbourhood spats, it’s the adults who settle old scores by using their children to inflict a bloody-nose or two.

    Sometimes, when the ‘police’ are called, the entire area erupts into a riotous defense against outside interference as the original protagonists combine forces to protect their own. We do indeed live in interesting times.

    • With the exception of the Iraq War I & II, America has fought two major wars since the end of WWII, in Korea and Vietnam. Both technically ended in stalemate, and both had Chinese involvement. South Vietnam and Korea marked the absolute boundaries of the American Empire, like the Romans pushing in to Germany, they just could not do it.

      The picture above is not a map of modern China, but rather a map of China over 100 years ago, and those countries shaded a darker red are what Chinese history buffs consider to be the Chinese backyard.

      The influence of some countries is expanding, and some others retracting. Every generation, each country’s backyard is redefined, Britain’s has been shrinking for over 100 years now. Whether America’s will rebound, or China’s continue to grow, or whether a unified Korea could really establish itself as a long term fully independent nation is hard to say.

  2. Hello NI,
    Interesting link….. “South Korea will exempt up to 25,000 of any American company’s cars from its strict safety standards, as long as they meet similar U.S. regulations.” ….. makes one wonder.

    Why would Sth Korea lower its high standards of protection for its own consumers only to have them set lower by US regulations? The customer loses again.

    • You mean; what was the quid pro quo? i am sure all will be revealed.
      And what does this line mean?:
      Obama administration will…… create momentum for a broader push on free trade in 2011.”
      I submit that it is pure bullshit. Let us see what sort of dairy market access the US offers in the current trans Pacific partnership talks. I predict about as much access as Aussie beef imports have to the US under the AUS-US “free” trade agreement .

  3. Very well thought out! I don’t really see reunification between the two Koreas happening anytime soon though, despite the potential benefits it might bring to both sides.

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