American Interest

Why Beijing Pussyfoots Around Pyongyang

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship

In all his statements and tweets on North Korea, President Trump has repeatedly returned to one theme: China should be doing more to squeeze Pyongyang economically in response to its nuclear program, lest the United States take matters into its own hands. Financial Times offers a look at why North Korea is not yielding to economic pressure—and why the Chinese are disinclined to push further:

“We don’t like the North Korean regime or Kim Jong Un,” says a senior Chinese academic and foreign policy adviser with close ties to decision makers in Beijing. “But if [Pyongyang and Washington] continue to confront each other even emotionally, it gets in the way of solving the problem. China has suffered the most from the sanctions. We are making the biggest sacrifice. But the North Koreans’ primary concern is security, which can only be offered by the US.” […]

“North Korea is a special country and will not collapse easily,” warns the senior Chinese academic and foreign policy adviser. “They have very strong willpower and cohesion. People should think twice before taking a [military] leap. North Korea is not Syria, Iraq or Libya. There would be chaos in north-east Asia as a whole. If that happens, [Mr Trump’s] dream of making America great again will be only a dream.”

This is a succinct summary of the typical Chinese line on North Korea, highlighting the main analytical difference between China and the United States. China assumes the long-term stability of the regime and also believes that any regime change would be ugly, messy, and dangerous—if it happens at all. The Chinese think of Kim, in some ways, as a much more determined and effective Assad.

The United States, on the other hand, often sees the regime as unstable because it is founded on such anti-liberal principles. On both the Right and the Left, Americans tend to believe that non-democratic regimes cannot last, despite thousands of years of history suggesting otherwise.

Trump may be coming around to an understanding of the Chinese view: “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy, ” he famously said about his discussions with Xi over North Korea. Whether he can alter Beijing’s deep-rooted assumptions, let alone change Pyongyang’s calculus, remains to be seen.