The best way is to take the initiative to facilitate unification with South Korea, says Deng Yuwen
North Korea’s third nuclear test is a good moment for China to re-evaluate its longstanding alliance with the Kim dynasty. For several reasons, Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean peninsula.
First, a relationship between states based on ideology is dangerous. If we were to choose our allies on ideology alone, China’s relationship with the west today would not exist. Although both countries are socialist, their differences are much larger than those between China and the west.
Second, basing China’s strategic security on North Korea’s value as a geopolitical ally is outdated. Even if North Korea was a useful friend during the cold war, its usefulness today is doubtful. Just imagine if the US, because of Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons, came to see North Korea as a grave threat to its national security and launched a pre-emptive attack on it. Would China not be obliged to help North Korea based on our “alliance”? Would that not be drawing fire upon ourselves? If so, what useful “buffer” would be left to speak of? China’s own strength and openness will be its most reliable safeguard.
Third, North Korea will not reform and open up to the world. The international community once hoped that Kim Jong-eun would push reforms after taking power in 2011, and North Korea seemed to show signs of such a move. But even if he personally had the will to push small-scale reform, the country’s ruling group would absolutely not allow him to do so. Once the door of reform opened, the regime could be overthrown. Why should China maintain relations with a regime and a country that will face failure sooner or later?
Fourth, North Korea is pulling away from Beijing. The Chinese like to view their relationship with Pyongyang through their shared sacrifice during the Korean war instead of reality. They describe it as a “friendship sealed in blood”. But North Korea does not feel like this at all towards its neighbour.
As early as the 1960s, North Korea rewrote the history of the war. To establish the absolute authority of Kim Il-sung, its founder, North Korea removed from historical record the contribution of the hundreds of thousands of sons and daughters of China who sacrificed themselves to beat the UN troops back to the 38th parallel that now divides the peninsula. Many cemeteries commemorating the volunteer soldier heroes have been levelled, and Kim Il-sung was given all the credit for the offensive. For the North Korean people, shaking off the “Chinese bond” was seen as an expression of independence and autonomy.
Last, once North Korea has nuclear weapons, it cannot be ruled out that the capricious Kim regime will engage in nuclear blackmail against China. According to Xue Litai of Stanford University, during former US president Bill Clinton’s 2009 visit to Pyongyang, the North Koreans blamed the poverty of their economy on China’s “selfish” strategy and American sanctions. Kim Jong-il, then leader, hinted that the motive for withdrawing from six-party talks on his country’s arms programme was to free Pyongyang from Beijing. It was not directed against the US. He suggested that if Washington held out a helping hand, North Korea could become its strongest fortress against China. And Pyongyang revealed it could use a nuclear arsenal to coerce China.
North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons is, in part, based on the illusion that it can achieve an equal negotiating position with the US, and thereby force Washington to compromise. But it is entirely possible that a nuclear-armed North Korea could try to twist China’s arm if Beijing were to fail to meet its demands or if the US were to signal goodwill towards it.
Considering these arguments, China should consider abandoning North Korea. The best way of giving up on Pyongyang is to take the initiative to facilitate North Korea’s unification with South Korea. Bringing about the peninsula’s unification would help undermine the strategic alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul; ease the geopolitical pressure on China from northeast Asia; and be helpful to the resolution of the Taiwan question.
The next best thing would be to use China’s influence to cultivate a pro-Beijing government in North Korea, to give it security assurances, push it to give up nuclear weapons and start moving towards the development path of a normal country.
The writer is deputy editor of Study Times, the journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China