We Can’t Be Friends Anymore

With all of the recent bluster about North Korea, I’ve started thinking more about how far the NK regime can push its luck before it finally starts to become a burden to China, rather than an asset.  They seem to pop up every couple of years with some sort of wild antics, so I wonder if this time is any different?   The benefits of having NK as a sort of buffer state really seems like a relic of the Cold War.  This might have made sense on an ideological basis, as well as a security basis, at one point in time, but I have to wonder what the continued benefits are.


It strikes me that NK is much more reliant upon China than China is upon NK in an economic sense.  Below is a graph showing the percentage of China’s GDP that is accounted for by total trade with North and South Korea.  The figured used to calculate this graph came from Kristian Gleditsch’s Expanded Trade Data and are shown in current US dollars.

(I don’t typically work with international trade data, so I hope I’ve done this correctly.  And if anyone can point me to more recent trade data with GDP and bilateral trade included, please let me know as I’d be interested to look at this stuff with more current data.)

This article published by the CFR talks a bit about growing bilateral trade between China and NK, specifically that it rose by about 41% in the course of a year.  That’s interesting, but that puts their 2007 trade at somewhere between 1.95 and 2 billion dollars, right?  The data used above indicates that bilateral trade between China and South Korea was about 49 billion in 2000.  What’s that adjusted for inflation?  If I am to trust the handy inflation calculators that Google kicks back that’s roughly 60 billion in 2009 dollars.  I think in that context, a 41% increase to 2 billion isn’t quite so impressive.  Furthermore, this 2 billion is pretty lopsided, as the article makes mention.  Chinese exports to NK far outweigh their imports from NK.

The article also discusses Beijing’s refusal to sign on to broader and harsher sanctions after NK’s atomic weapons testing in 2006.  This could be more the result of China’s fear of the effects of really hammering NK’s general population and the potential for an increase in tensions along the border than demonstrating a real affinity for the regime itself.  The article seems to emphasize that China fears the collapse of NK for the refugee crisis that would ensue almost as much as it would for broader international security reasons.  They also link to a Congressional Research Service article that says the following regarding Chinese aid to NK:

“China also provides aid directly to Pyongyang. By bypassing the United Nations, China is able to use its assistance to pursue its own political goals independently of the goals of other countries. It is widely believed that Chinese food aid is channeled to the military. This allows the World Food Program’s food aid to be targeted at the general population without risk that the military-first policy or regime stability would be undermined by foreign aid policies of other countries.”

A lot has been written on the Cold War and the relationships between the US, China, and the USSR, and one of the themes that pops up frequently is the idea that we tend to overestimate the intimacy of relations between states that we perceive to be enemies.  The CFR article does make note that some regional experts have made it a point to mention that Americans may tend to believe China has more sway over NK than it really does, and I think this is an important point.  So to refer to the previous passage on food aid, I have to wonder if we’re not guilty of inferring preferences from actions here?  China has ample reason to be afraid of the consequences of NK’s collapse, and I wonder if it’s possible that China is simply acting strategically by directing its food aid directly to the military.  The CRS article notes that one consequence of this action is that global food aid is allowed to focus on the general population.

Putting my skepticism aside for a moment regarding whether or not this international aid really reaches that many people, it seems to me that China benefits in two ways from this tactic of distributing food aid directly to the regime.  First, by being the one to provide aid directly to the regime/military, I’d guess they build some serious clout with the people that matter in making decisions.  Second, perhaps this allows for a more efficient distribution of food aid to the general population–rather, maybe more food is getting to the people than would otherwise be the case, thereby helping to alleviate tensions between NK’s people and government (although I would imagine things are still pretty tense).  China really can’t ignore NK’s domestic population if it hopes to successfully use NK as a buffer.

Also, NK’s decision to develop nuclear weapons is as much a way of making China pay attention as it is of getting the attention of the US and the rest of the West.  Overall NK seems to be declining in terms of its significant to Chinese interests.  China is positioned to continue its rise to global power and stands to benefit from becoming more of a major player in the existing international institutions.  I think the costs for the Chinese would be far too high were they to try to totally scrap existing international frameworks, as they would likely face a great deal of resistance from the US and other European powers.  That said, NK is TOTALLY outside the box on this one.  They really don’t fit into the existing framework at all, and stand to benefit little from it.  So maybe developing nukes is partially a consequence of the idea that China is questioning the utility of continued support for NK, and the NK regime wants to give China some added incentive to keep the regime together.

The CFR article notes that some people insist that China is “thinking one hundred years ahead,” in its stance toward NK, opting for gradual and incremental reform.  It’s possible that we’re again falling into the trap of inferring preferences from actions (or inaction), and viewing our competitors as being craftier and more devious than ourselves.  Just because we don’t see China taking drastic and immediate steps does not mean that it has big, long-term dreams for its little friend.  It’s possible, as others have pointed out, that the recent uptick in tensions reflects internal problems.  And the article does mention that some in the think tank community
believe China would allow the NK regime to fall, but is simply reluctant
to give it a push.  Consequently, it’s also possible that China is flying by the seat of its pants as well in determining how to deal with its old ally.

China might be taking great care in its rise to power, not wanting to become overly ambitious or confrontational too soon.  But I wonder how long it can maintain a relatively ambiguous stance toward important issues like NK?  Is it possible that not taking a solid position will backfire?  If the US remains unsure of China’s preferences it is possible that relations could suffer in ways that could have been avoided, should NK choose to become more belligerent.  This article from this morning suggests that maybe some changes are brewing.

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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