Global HotSpots

North Korea: China’s Tar Baby

Why does Beijing prop up an unhelpful ally regime that could spark a major war?

Credit: Christophe BOISSON Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • China’s largesse is the only real reason that North Korea has yet to collapse.
  • Without that Chinese lifeline providing food and energy, North Korea would likely quickly implode.
  • China must be held accountable for the actions of its renegade vassal state, North Korea.
  • Why does China prop up a regime increasingly threatening to drag it into a vortex of nuclear war?

Following an apparent nuclear test in North Korea, the U.S. Congress is expected to adopt rapidly a new set of sanctions on the country. The isolation, however, will be nothing new.

Since the Korean War armistice in 1953, North Korea has been almost perfectly sealed off from the rest of the world.

This self-imposed isolation is rooted in an ideology known as “Juche,” first introduced in 1955 by North Korea’s original “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung.

Literally translated, Juche means “self-reliance;” and by following Juche’s autarkic path, North Korea’s succession of Kim-family dictators has led the country’s perpetually starving masses straight down the path to a proverbial “nasty, brutish, and short” Hobbesian existence.

(On the “short” part, Hobbes didn’t quite have this in mind – chronic malnutrition has left a new generation of North Koreans an average of several inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.)

Today, the North Korean economy is a certifiable basket case. However, it is not just the autarkic absence of a robust global trade that has held growth back.

The hunger in North Korea

In the hopes of feeding its starving masses, North Korea has remained primarily an agrarian economy.

However, relatively poor soil, a shortage of arable land, communist-style production methods and repeated cycles of floods and droughts have resulted in a string of famines.

These have literally starved to death more than 10% of North Korea’s population of about 25 million.

As for what little manufacturing capacity North Korea has, it is devoted primarily to weapons production. Its ballistic missile program alone costs more than a billion dollars a year. This for a country with an annual gross domestic product of only around $15 billion total.

South Korea has a more than one trillion dollar economy. It is perhaps the starkest statistical difference in celebration of capitalism and democracy ever tallied.

In a related “guns versus butter” vein, North Korea maintains the fourth-largest army in the world behind only that of China, the United States and India. This it does with a population base of roughly 8% that of America’s and a mere 2% of China’s.

On top of all this, the Kim family dynasty has been notorious for squandering government revenues on their own personal consumption of luxury goods.

A Chinese dependency

In fact, the only real reason North Korea has yet to collapse is China’s largesse. It provides North Korea with as much as 90% of its energy imports and 45% of its food. Take that Chinese lifeline away, and North Korea would likely quickly implode.

Why does China continue to prop up a regime that, as the “tar baby” of Asia, increasingly threatens to drag China itself into the vortex of nuclear war?

Geopolitically, Beijing fears that a reunified Korea would side with the American-South Korean democratic alliance rather than with an authoritarian China.

This might transpire following a North Korean collapse – or even merely a complete rapprochement between North and South Korea in the tradition of West Germany’s effective absorption of East Germany.

Economically, China has also found North Korea to be a pliable colony to exploit for the natural resources it needs for its own factory floor.

Beijing’s bargaining chip

Diplomatically, North Korea has served Beijing as a very important “bargaining chip.” Here, every time North Korea exhibits some new form of outrageous behavior, the White House – no matter the occupant – always turns to China in the hopes it will help control its “wild child.”

In the process, the United States takes a softer line on issues ranging from climate change to China’s mercantilism with regard to the U.S. economy.

China, for its part, has never really delivered North Korean denuclearization successfully after many years of negotiations.

Shared history, shared responsibility

As a final – but not inconsequential – reason for Beijing’s continued backing of an increasingly unstable and erratic regime, there are the close ties between the armies of North Korea and China that date back to the Korean War.

During this conflict, as many as a million soldiers on the North Korea-China side lost their lives at the hands of the “American imperialists.” While this war was over 60 years ago, these military roots nonetheless still run deep.

It has been very difficult for China’s civilian leadership to develop a harder line on North Korea because of these ties.

For all of these geostrategic, economic, diplomatic, and familial reasons, the fortunes of China and North Korea remain tightly intertwined.

At the end of the day, the primary responsibility for preventing a North Korean-induced cataclysm rests on China’s shoulders.

That stark realization should guide American diplomacy and policy going forward – and the unified platform for all the 2016 presidential candidates.

China must be held far more accountable for the actions of its now renegade vassal state.

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About Peter Navarro

Peter Navarro is a professor of Economics and Public Policy at The Paul Merage School of Business, University of California-Irvine.

Responses to “North Korea: China’s Tar Baby”

Archived Comments.

  1. On January 18, 2016 at 2:57 pm lex responded with... #

    But what about North Korean’s greatest potential export, nuclear weapons technology? I wonder how often the Iranians will be coming into the North Korean nuclear store?