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5 reasons why China won't help US on North Korea

North Korea tested its third nuclear device in February after launching the equivalent of an intercontinental ballistic missile in December.

Then the Kim regime threatened to rain missiles on Hawaii and Guam with the hope, it is widely thought, that the world would accept the North as a normal, nuclear power. US policymakers believe China, on whom the North is heavily dependent, can exercise leverage and help the US get North Korea to step into line.

During an April visit to Beijing, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said the Chinese were working to help with the North, “But, I didn’t gain any insights into particularly how they would do that,” he said.

Many Asia watchers are dubious that China either can or will take decisive action to push North Korea. Here are five underlying reasons why:

1. China needs friends

China wants to fulfill international expectations and live up to its emerging status as a great power, but it has a long history with North Korea. China might be nervous, say analysts, that the North could actually get serious one-on-one talks with Washington and flip loyalties.

Many Chinese look at North Korea – isolated, poor, ideological – and see themselves 30 years ago. Back then China and the North were as “close as lips and teeth” – fellow traveling revolutionaries and former war partners against the imperialists. 

But the world is changing. When Beijing looks around Asia, it can see some abrupt flips of position and loyalty: Myanmar, one of China’s previous pets, suddenly looks like it may come out of its dark cocoon and make friends with others. Vietnam, long a Chinese fellow-traveler, has turned away as well. China may not want to lose such a strategic card and partner as the North.

2. China wants to maintain a 'buffer zone'

China may not like the fact that Kim Jong-un is playing dangerous games: After Mr. Kim’s latest nuclear test, many Chinese on social media were angry, calling him a “baby tiger” to be tamed.

But China feels it needs North Korea as a security buffer.

An under-developed and impotent North separates China from a vibrant and democratic zone now called South Korea. For the moment, that’s just fine. China is a soft-authoritarian regime; a main worry is control of its own people. But any scenario that ends up with the US and allies standing on its northeast border becomes a problem in China's eyes. The idea of a US soldier driving a jeep or tank to within inches of its territory, or of Japanese or South Korean traders standing freely at the Yellow River, is radically unwanted. East Asia is still in a 19th century “power game” of nations.

Hence, in Beijing's view, keeping North Korea stable keeps it as a buffer from the US or anyone else getting too close to China.

3. Refugees are expensive and threaten China's stability

A North Korea in transition – whether finally opening up or in collapse, or both – could see mass movements of people.

If Koreans move out of the North they will likely go across the border to China, rather than risk the heavily mined demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. China has a bit of a window into what that could look like: A flight-to-China scenario actually did happen in the famine years of the 1990s, when, despite the most dire of warnings and penalty of torture or death, tens of thousands of North Koreans escaped to China to avoid starvation.

While there is no similar mass hunger today, China is worried about the lack of control it might have should a war or a crisis force possibly hundreds of thousands of ordinary Koreans across the Yellow River and into its provinces.

The prospect of so many refugees flooding into China would not only be expensive and potentially flare ethnic tensions in the region, it could violate one of China’s prime directives: stability.

4. A unified Korea could mean serious competition eventually

A unified, robust Korea could cut into China’s clout and competitiveness.

Before it divided, Korea was agricultural and saw itself as a shrimp among the whales of China and Japan. But in the past decade, South Korea and its population of less than 50 million, has become one of the top 10 industrial output nations. Just as South Korea cut into Japan’s share two decades ago, a unified Korea could give Beijing a tough competitor. Thinkers in Seoul have looked to the example of Germany uniting, East and West. The creation of joint North-South industrial parks like Kaesong (recently closed by Kim Jong-un) or other projects in the Koreas, using a disciplined and talented people, could be an economic threat.

Of late, China has fixed its eye on North Korean minerals, including rare earth metals, of which the Kim family may be able to extract, over time, an estimated $3 trillion to $5 trillion – perhaps solving the North’s perennial cash problem.

Should Korea reconcile and unify however, long-time Asia watcher Philip Bowring, a dean of journalism in Hong Kong, points out in a recent column:

Korea can never be a large nation, but the combination of the South's global impact on technology and on popular culture with the energy that a reviving northern region - which also has a younger population - could provide, is a prospect that is not without problems for Beijing.

5. A combination of all of those reasons

China gives power, energy, food, goods, and support to North Korea to keep it stable and a buffer zone in a relationship that is ambiguous and often frustrating. All of the previous scenarios weigh into China's calculations about its interests; a change in the status quo could bring a double portion of unhappiness to Chinese planners.

Beijing often complains that the US is trying to “contain” it. Yet for a decade, as North Korea crossed many “red lines” – going from IAEA nuclear inspectors, to actually testing nukes – Washington has relied on Beijing to organize its policy on Pyongyang.

China, in a sense, controls the relationship through the now-moribund Six-Party talks. Some China hawks in the US believe China voted for UN sanctions against North Korea in February partly to drive an unremovable wedge between America and North Korea. More moderate voices like that of Scott Snyder at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington argue: “The US is trying to get more cooperation from China but also has pursued direct talks” with Pyongyang.

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