The limits of economic leverage in North Korea


For decades, courageous and determined American policymakers, facing the challenges of North Korea, have courageously fixed their steely gazes on East Asia and, with determination, courage and conviction, have chosen to seek scapegoats rather than making hard choices. And although scapegoats have been found in several places, the most common target is China, the one nation that most people believe could easily bring North Korea to heel. “I am very disappointed with China”, former President Donald Trump tweeted in 2017. “Our foolish former rulers have made them hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, but they are doing NOTHING for us with North Korea, they are just talking. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!

In truth, China cannot easily solve this problem. Beijing, of course, has enormous economic leverage over North Korea. But even though the Chinese leadership could somehow be convinced to exercise this power (an unlikely proposition), there is still not enough leverage to force the Kim’s to give in. The North has enough economic relationships (both formal and through its vast black market network) to satisfy the elites at the top of society. And since these same elites have long demonstrated that they don’t care whether the rest of the country is starving, and have even used such internal crises in the past as a means of increasing their internal repression, it doesn’t seem no reason to believe that the North would not continue to confuse even with the most stringent Chinese sanctions.

Indeed, the fundamental problem with the so-called “Chinese solution” is that Americans have long misunderstood the relationship between the two countries. The popular belief is that they are closely linked by fraternal and ideological ties, a perception motivated by decades of Cold War enmity that were especially reinforced by Chinese intervention in the Korean War (as well as by simplistic visions of race, nationalism, international communism, Confucianism, and so many other factors that Americans tend to narrow down to a “one size fits all” model). In reality, however, the relationship has long been more tumultuous as Americans like to think. The links between Pyongyang and Beijing are less close look like that of “lips and teeth”, and more of a marriage of convenience, born out of self-interest and designed to meet short-term strategic needs. When these bonds hit hard times, as they often do, North Korean leaders made it clear that they would never give in to Chinese influence, and Chinese leaders also made it clear that their influence was overwhelming. rather limited way. A high-ranking Chinese personality complained to US officials in 2009 that his country agreed with the US position on the DPRK’s nuclear program but could do little to help it. “The only country that can make progress with the North Koreans is the United States,” he noted. “The United States was the key while China was only able to apply a little oil to the lock.”

This does not mean, of course, that China has no role to play in the process. It certainly is. But this can only help within the framework of parameters already deemed acceptable by the North. In other words, if Pyongyang decides that it is indeed in its best interests to engage in meaningful talks at the nuclear negotiating table (which it will not do), China may be able to provide dessert, and maybe even take them home. The trip to the table, however, will only be via Pyongyang.

Mitchell Lerner is professor of history and director of the East Asian Studies Center at Ohio State University. He is also deputy editor-in-chief of Asian-American Relations Journal.

Image: Reuters.

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