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Why China Needs North Korea

[Editor’s note: Yang Hengjun is a Western educated prominent blogger in China. His recent article on the China-North Korea relationship was widely circulated in China. Within the first week after it appeared on the blog on June 10, the article generated nearly 500,000 hits and more than 500 comments.

His provocative view on China’s need for North Korea’s mischief generated numerous polarizing comments from readers. Many were surprised by his analysis. Most readers seemed to have misread his points. He appears to have camouflaged his subtle message to evade censorship, but a small number of sophisticated readers – both hard line communists and pro-democracy netizens – got it, and they expressed their opinions in a heated cyber debate.

Regardless of his real intention, Yang’s analysis offered a unique interpretation of Beijing’s motivation for sustaining its rogue neighbor. The following is the translation of an abridged version of Yang’s essay.] [1]

Several answers to this question come to mind: ideology (the same political system); historical reasons (traditional friendship); and national security and interests from a geo-political perspective, as North Korea is a buffer zone to resist the U.S.-Japan-South Korea forces to pressure China. … These are plausible answers. However, for China’s diplomacy and national interests, maintaining the status quo in the North has a more realistic and direct benefit. The constantly troublemaking North Korea is a spring board for China’s “rise” in the world. It helps China stay in the limelight, and it serves a very necessary link between China and the U.S. and other major powers.

After the recent sinking of Cheonan warship, and especially after North Korean soldiers shot and killed three Chinese smugglers, some Chinese netizens called for ditching the North, so that China can rid itself of the troubles that North Korea has caused. Some said that despite China’s generous support over the years, North Korea’s insistence on making nuclear weapons has damaged China’s interests. People believe that after Beijing abandons the North, a united Korea would be of more benefit to China’s economic interests. In addition, on the military front, North Korea is hardly an asset. Sooner or later, China will probably be dragged into some regional confrontation or even a war.

Following this logic, China’s close ties with North Korea do more harm than good. Nonetheless, setting aside justice and ideology, from a pure national interest angle, North Korea, the trouble maker, is actually of great help in enhancing China’s regional influence and international standing. In the last couple of days, I had some discussions with two heavyweight Western analysts on this issue.

They made an interesting analogy between the U.S. – Israel duet and the China – North Korean partnership, and pointed out the similarities between the two international hot buttons. Coincidentally, at the height of the Cheonan fiasco, Israel made a surprise attack on a civilian ship on the other (west) side of Asia. The Israeli aggression angered the international community and shifted the world’s attention (from the Korean crisis).

The alleged attacker of the Cheonan Ship, North Korea, and Israel, which attacked an international aid ship, are two troublemakers in eastern and western Asia, respectively. Their violence stirred up international outrage. But the international community could do little to them. The two countries both possess some power, with reputations as tough guys. More importantly, they both have strong sponsors, also the strongest tough guys: the U.S. and China. Some people may think the similarity is a sheer coincidence, but not the international experts.

Israel was founded after World War II with the support of the United States and the United Kingdom. Hitherto, this country has been the U.S.’s only reliable pivot in the Middle East, and the most important platform for the U.S. to exercise its influence over the world. It would be a joke if the U.S. were unable to control it and discipline Israel. But the U.S. has chosen not to do so. It (the U.S.) sells arms to Israel and provides aid in many areas. As my Western analyst friend said, “the Americans are waiting for the Israelis to make trouble. Only after they make trouble can the U.S. take action to solve the problems and demonstrate its muscle.” In his mind, if Israel becomes a nice guy to its neighbors, the Middle Eastern people will probably soon forget about the U.S. That would be a disaster for the U.S. – which acts as the world’s police and throws its weight around in the world.

The North Korea – China relationship is not exactly the same as the Israel – U.S. alliance. North Korea’s significance to China, however, is by no means less important than Israel’s to the U.S. The U.S. has more than one “Israel” at its disposal, while China has only one North Korea. North Korea shares some similarities with Israel. Every time it (North Korea) made trouble, it not only avoided causing real harm to China’s vital interests, but also pushed China into the focal point on the world stage, attracting hordes of Western politicians to shake hands, and to wine and dine with Chinese leaders. This kind of opportunity, to a giant nation that has an image that is more superficial than substantive but nonetheless enjoys showing off its muscle, is a precious gift too good to pass up.

Take a look at the headlines from the West. You will see that the Chinese have returned to the international stage again. What are they doing here? They are not here for the Americans to lecture them on how undervalued the Renminbi is. Nor are they here to defend their human rights record. China is here to solve problems. Who can help China gain such a positive image and favorable press other than North Korea?

Unlike many Chinese people who have indulged in their “great power rising” fantasies, the Western think tanks and researchers do not have any illusions about China’s GDP. Some observers have bluntly rated China’s influence in the world stage as mediocre, no more than an “average Joe.” China has a hard time exercising its political influence because of the waning influence of its ideology; its military power can barely defend its national territory; and China does not have the capability to fight a long range war in a foreign country. The only useful tool left is economic lever.

Speaking of the economy, China’s capital reserve is clearly a source of pride. But China is rich only when compared to its past. Moreover, leveraging economic influence in the world goes way beyond China’s current spending spree, such as buying U.S. treasury bonds, stabilizing the Renminbi, and burning money left and right like a spoiled child. The country must be strong enough to use its economic “weapon” to restrain and punish other countries. At present, China is hard pressed to do that. China’s economy depends heavily on other countries. If China were to use some hard earned cash to oppose certain foreign countries, it could end up doing China more harm (than good). No wonder, some Americans have predicted that, for the foreseeable future, China does not dare to fight an economic war with the United States. If the U.S. economy stumbles, they would elect another president; if China’s economic development suddenly stalled, the consequences would be more than just changing a president.

China has bought some influence in several African countries by dumping money, but its influence is not backed by political, military, or advanced technological support, and its influence is unsustainable. Look at China’s international attention and achievements in the past two decades: one is China’s continued economic development and its positive influence on the world; the other is China’s role in some regional hot issues. North Korea is a behind-the-scenes propeller that keeps pushing China onto the world stage. It’s hard to know whether Western leaders would miss their Chinese counterpart without North Korea making trouble. If that happened, the Chinese leaders for sure would be disappointed.

Due to the influence of geopolitics, ideology and the cold war mentality, many people still believe that North Korea is a buffer zone for China to fend off Japan, South Korea and the U.S. It is time to abandon the old thinking. Let’s get real. North Korea, the troublemaker, is actually helping China to take the world stage. It is China’s bargaining chip and trump card to deal with the U.S. and other regional powers.

North Korea plays a very important role in China’s rise. In fact, all the big powers in history achieved their prominence by stepping on smaller countries. If a country thinks it can avoid trouble, stay away from the big powers, and become a strong nation through peaceful means, it is dreaming. Such a thing has never happened before. In international society, the squeaky wheels always get oiled. Behind many international conflicts, there are complicated factors. To become a firefighter, one has to learn how to start a fire. To become the world police, one has to create some rogue states first.

China’s dealing with North Korea rivals the Western imperialists’ power play in the past century. As long as national boundaries exist, and “Communism” or the ultimate unified Europe have not become a reality, national interest and security will continue to dominate international politics. Sometimes, a country’s real motivation can directly violate its belief in universal values when dealing with its own people.

That being said, when I talked with the two experts, I still could not help feeling a great concern. After all, North Korea and Israel are very different countries. Although Israel often behaves aggressively, it does so in the interest of the Israeli people. It is a “troublemaking” democracy. Now look at North Korea. I simply cannot understand what they want from all the trouble (they create), not to mention the Korean people’s misery.

The big deal makers before World War II did not have to consider these factors; diplomats during the Cold War were too busy to pay attention to this (North Korea’s motivation). But times have changed. If China truly wants to rise above the other nations and to deserve others’ respect, it must think hard, and establish a position between its “national interest” and universal values, between human rights and national rights, between long-term interests and instant gratification. China must make a decision that can pass the test of history.

[1] Yang Hengjun, “Diplomacy Yang’s Paper,” series of seven 2010/6/10