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Don’t count on China

It is fundamentally misguided to think that North Korea will kowtow to external pressure, especially from China.
Dec 20,2017
In my meetings with U.S. officials and policy makers on North Korea, many seem to believe that the key to solving the problem lies with China. Their argument is that if China were to fully use its economic leverage on North Korea, the Kim Jong-un regime would succumb to Chinese pressure and have no choice but to change its behavior toward nuclear weapons. There are two problems with this reasoning.

First, the argument ignores the modern history of Northeast Asia that gave birth to the present North Korean regime. When analyzing North Korean behavior, it is critical to understand that North Korea was born out of the resistance against Japan’s occupation of Korea in the early 20th century.

Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, led a band of Korean independence fighters against Japan’s armies in Manchuria. The core ruling class that formed the North Korean government consisted of independence fighters from inside and outside the Korean Peninsula. Their descendants continue to make up the nucleus of elite support that Kim Jong-un enjoys today. Anti-imperialism is embedded into the country’s DNA.

However, anti-imperialism isn’t limited to Japan or the United States. In truth, the traditional hegemon of Korea has always been the various dynasties of China. While the threat of Japan has faded into history, the threat of a rising China has not.

Today, the North Korean leadership considers China to be the primary threat to regime survival. Despite paying lip service to their alliance, the Kim dynasty cannot afford to have any forces within the regime answer to foreign governments, especially China with its huge influence on North Korea’s viability.

This has always been the case. In August 1956, Kim Il Sung purged people he suspected of seeking to overthrow him with backing from the Chinese Communist Party. Soon afterward, Kim forced Mao Zedong to remove all remaining Chinese military presence — which had saved him during the Korean War — from North Korea.

His son, Kim Jong-il, was also quoted as saying that the Chinese should never be trusted. This underlying mistrust seems to be the reason behind the death of Jang Song-thaek and Kim Jong-nam, both of whom were suspected as China’s potential alternatives to the current leadership.

As such, allowing Chinese pressure, whether economic or political, to dictate the terms of North Korea’s national security goes against the country’s fundamental nature and self-interest of the current regime. A nation founded on anti-imperialism simply cannot allow an imperial power, even a nominally friendly one, to interfere in its own affairs.

This is not unique to North Korea. The relationship between Vietnam and China has similarly been driven by historical suspicions despite their shared socialist background. Any local leader seen as allowing interference from China will not remain a leader for long.

Second, even if we ignore the history and culture of a country and strictly take a transactional view of international relations, North Korea’s economic reliance on China is overblown.

Under the current leadership, North Korea has expanded food production by legalizing markets and private farming. As a result, food prices have been remarkably stable for the past five years. In fact, they have been lower in North Korea than in China.

On top of that, even if the tougher sanctions cause severe economic pains, could it ever be severe enough to convince the regime to surrender its nukes? Remember that North Korea survived famine in the late 1990s, when up to three million people starved to death. This is a nation that has been the most isolated, sanctioned and condemned in the past 60 years. Yet it still stands.

The international community cannot project its collective sensibilities onto its expectations of North Korean behavior. What we might consider a reasonable breaking point is not what the North Korean regime would consider a breaking point. What we might consider unbearable pain and isolation is not what the North Korean regime would think unbearable.

If we believe that economic hardships will compel such a nation to suddenly yield to pressure and behave as told — especially on something so critical as its autonomy and national security — then we are not thinking about this transaction correctly. It is fundamentally misguided to think that a nation born out of a traumatic and visceral reaction against external imperialist pressure would all of a sudden kowtow to external pressure, especially from China, the imperial power that victimized Korea over millennia. We would sooner expect to see a leopard change its spots.

This is the second of a four-part series of Venerable Pomnyun Sunim’s views on North Korea.

*The author is a Buddhist monk engaged in humanitarian and human rights work in North Korea. He is also founder and chairman of the Peace Foundation, a national security policy think tank in Seoul. He can be reached at pomnyun@pf.or.kr.

Venerable Pomnyun Sunim