Playing devil’s advocate: Why China is still supporting North Korea

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As North Korea dances around the international stage with their threat of nuclear Armageddon, countries such as Japan and the United States have been putting increasing pressure on China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, to defuse the situation by placing further trade embargoes and sanctions on the “hermit kingdom”. However, the lack of major contributions made by China reveals that Beijing is reluctant, at best, to confront North Korea directly. Despite the noise made by certain actors on the political stage, it would be fair to step into China’s position and explore why they are taking such a position, and why it may be the best option available for them at present.

Dandong, a Chinese city situated at the border between China and North Korea, separated by the Yalu River, is a city you may have never heard of, yet it has a population the size of Chicago and now is at the epicentre of a political and diplomatic crisis. Until recently, Dandong has greatly benefited from its unusual position to the DPRK, drawing almost six million domestic tourists a year. Its main attraction is a view of the most secretive state on the planet.

In addition, cross-border trading companies have benefited from the exports of textiles, steel, chemicals and imports of cheap natural resources such as coal. With almost $500m worth of products being traded through Dandong and an additional $600m in tourism, it is fair to say Dandong’s economy has a heavy reliance on North Korea. Inevitably the recent sanctions placed on North Korea by China have had an unintended victim: Dandong’s cross-border manufacturing firms have been hit particularly hard, with their largest market unavailable and a saturated domestic market, Dandong firms have been forced to make layoffs and wage cuts, severely damaging the local economy. Moreover, honest, hardworking people who have no control over where the products they produce are exported, are being punished because of the wild fantasies of a deranged foreign dictator. You may argue that these sanctions are short-term, however, so far they have not proved effective and North Korea has continued its  nuclear program so there is not yet any end in sight to the sanctions. Understandably many residents in Dandong are so pessimistic about their city’s future.

Dandong bridge to North Korea

Dandong may suffer some economic instability as a result of the sanctions, but that is a drop in the ocean to the potential implications of a collapsed North Korean government. If the Kim regime collapses, the militarisation of the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) would make an escape to South Korea nearly impossible, resulting in a gargantuan exodus of North Korean refugees flooding into China, with Dandong at the frontier. During the 2015 refugee crisis, the crossing of about 1.8 million refugees into Europe was enough to cause such political upstir, resulting in the rise of many populist movements.

Imagine the political and economic consequences if 25 million unskilled, starving North Korean refugees entered one of the poorest regions in China, comparatively much less developed and poorer than the countries that accepted migrants in Europe, such as Germany or  Sweden. Such an event would be unthinkable and almost definitely result in a humanitarian catastrophe, with Northeastern China having neither the land nor infrastructure to support such a large surge in migrants, even with aid from the US, South Korea and Japan.

Accompanying a refugee crisis on a scale unseen in human history, the collapse of the DPRK would result in the unification of Korea and 40,000 US troops on the Chinese Border – evoking memories of the Korean war in the early 50s. This would obviously pose a major military threat, especially with the current tense political climate between Trump and Xi. With US troops at China’s doorstep, China would be more cautious with some of their territorial games in the South China Sea and Kashmir. From a western point of view, this may be a good thing but, for many Chinese citizens, this might be just another example of the US trying to limit China’s regional power in Asia.

A unified Korea would also have implications for China-Korea trade. Some would argue a unified Korea would be beneficial to China, for South Korea is already a major trading partner after Xi and Park signed the China-South Korea Free Trade agreement in December of 2015. Moreover, a united Korea would allow for overland trade, perhaps allowing an economic rebirth of border cities such as Dandong and a connection to China’s ambitious New Silk Road project. To some extent, these hopes might become reality. On the other hand, with a united Korea having access to North Korea’s vast reserves of raw materials and workforce, there are understandable fears of China’s role in trading with South Korea might diminish.

I believe a fact that is commonly forgotten is the sheer size of the Chinese population. The two provinces bordering North Korea – Jilin and Liaoning – have a combined population of 70 million people, five million more than the whole of the UK. If China starts to take a proactive role against the DPRK, they might be threatening the lives of 70 million with a conventional land war, not to mention North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Major financial and population hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong would all be in range of North Korea’s missiles. Why should China risk the lives of so many people by purposely making itself a target?

Clearly, China wants a denuclearised Korea. A war in East Asia would result in a disaster for all parties. China would be inundated with refugees, South Korea and Japan would have lost millions to missile strikes and North Korea would be obliterated off the face off the Earth. However, if North Korea collapses, no-one can be sure whether there would be a refugee crisis or that Chinese cities would not be affected in the crossfire, and this high-stakes uncertainty makes China want to maintain the status quo. Many Chinese people look at North Korea not with fear, but with a nostalgia towards old hard-line Maoist Regine, where the undying love for regimes blinds common sense and where basic freedoms are restricted. Over time the hope is that North Korean tension will eventually relax and greater freedoms will be allowed.