A Chinese flag in front of the Friendship bridge over the Yalu River connecting North Korea and China. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
A Chinese flag in front of the Friendship bridge over the Yalu River connecting North Korea and China. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Whenever North Korea launches a ballistic missile or conducts a nuclear test, there are calls for China to do more to rein in its junior communist neighbor’s provocative and dangerous behavior. And often, Beijing rejects such calls.

For instance, after Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan on August 28, leaders from Australia and the United Kingdom were among those quickly and publicly calling on China to use its huge economic and diplomatic leverage to pressure Kim Jong-un’s regime.

On her arrival in Japan on August 30 for a three-day visit, British Prime Minister Theresa May urged China to intervene more vigorously in curbing North Korea’s weapons ambitions, calling Beijing “the key” to defusing the regime’s missile and nuclear threats.

A day later, during a radio interview, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China “has most responsibility” to curb North Korea, specifying that as it “has by far the greatest leverage” over the Kim regime, “China really has to step up now and bring this regime to its senses”.

After Pyongyang’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 3, US President Donald Trump threatened to stop “all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. Such a threat was undoubtedly aimed at China, the reclusive state’s main ally and biggest trading partner.

In fact, the argument that China has the most responsibility to temper its communist ally’s missile and nuclear threat has been strongly emphasized by the Trump administration, Japan, South Korea and many Western governments in recent months.

Yet China’s officials and media have vehemently rejected such calls, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman urging a halt to what he called the “China responsibility theory”.

One of the main reasons the Chinese often give to reject the demands is that they have already “made enormous efforts” to resolve the problem.

Another is that China is a mere outsider, even “the main external victim of the North Korean nuclear crisis”. This view holds that North Korea, US and South Korea are those directly responsible for the conundrum, and therefore, the key to the issue is in their hands.

That’s why while dodging its responsibility, China blames not only Pyongyang but also Washington and Seoul for the current crisis. This is also the logic behind the so-called freeze for freeze option – a temporary halt to US-South Korea military exercises in exchange for the North’s suspension of nuclear and missile activities – proposed by China and supported by Russia.

The question is, who is more right – or less wrong – in this blame game?

Without a doubt, China has recently toughened its posture on North Korea, supporting international sanctions and carrying out its own sanctions on its communist neighbor. Beijing is also right to call for restraint because the game of brinkmanship between Trump and Kim could lead to a disastrous nuclear war.

Yet it is very dodgy that Beijing seeks to duck its responsibility, presenting itself as an outsider – and worse, as a victim – of the North Korea crisis.

Unlike US-allied South Korea, which has flourished economically and politically, North Korea has turned into a reclusive nation of wretched poverty ruled brutally by a thuggish family.

While the vast majority of his fellow 25 million North Koreans suffer abject poverty, Kim Jong-un lives in extravagant luxury.

To maintain absolute power for himself, the 34-year-old, third-generation dictator of the Kim dynasty even murdered members of his own clan, including his uncle and half-brother.

Seeking to hold his grip on power at all costs is also the reason the young tyrant is seeking to develop and possess nuclear weapons that are now a real threat to the region and the world at large.

Though such a North Korea is not China’s sole making, the communist leadership in Beijing plays a key role in shaping it.

China overwhelmingly defended its communist neighbor during the Korean War (1950-53) and since then it has been the latter’s main economic benefactor and diplomatic supporter. It is North Korea’s only treaty ally (and vice versa) and Pyongyang’s biggest trader, accounting for about 90% of the reclusive state’s total trade.

Whether the Chinese recognize or not, without their military, diplomatic and economic support, the hereditary and dictatorial regime in Pyongyang cannot survive – let alone be able to live in luxury and advance its missile and nuclear weapons.

China’s freeze-for-freeze idea sounds very noble. Yet even some Chinese recognize that it is unrealistic because, through its words and deeds, Pyongyang shows it will not give up its nuclear weapons, but in fact will accelerate the program.

It is not surprising that Washington and Seoul straightforwardly reject the double-freeze proposal, with the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, recently calling it “insulting”.

After all, it is a despotic, penurious, hostile and nuclear North Korea – not a democratic, prosperous, peaceful and non-nuclear South Korea – that is posing a genuine threat to regional security and global peace.

Such a North Korea, whether Beijing now likes it or not, has been primarily protected and nourished by China for nearly seven decades.

Against this backdrop, while it is somewhat understandable that Beijing is reluctant to apply the sort of economic sanctions, such as cutting off the hermit kingdom’s oil supplies, that could lead to the Kim regime’s collapse, it is questionable, if not undesirable, for China to renounce its liability in the present crisis.

It should share blame – if not a large part of the blame – for what North Korea is and what it is doing today.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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