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Greenville Business Magazine

Myth of China – Influence over North Korea

Aug 31, 2017 08:38AM ● By Emily Stevenson

By Dr. Xiaobo Hu, Director, Center for China Studies, Clemson University

American population has been led to believe that China has strong influence, if not power, over North Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump even tweeted, more than once, something like China should rein in North Korea or it should be easy for China to handle North Korea. That is a myth, and far away from the reality or basic understanding of international politics. No one would think that the United States can dictate Canada.

In reality, North Korea has never been a puppet of any big powers, not even the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. On the contrary, North Korea has been very skillful in utilizing its neighboring countries and manipulating the differences between big powers, as it did between China and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

On the other hand, North Korea is stuck in its political commitment yet cannot afford changing its current path of national development set forth by the current leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and followed faithfully by his father. Any change of course will delegitimize the Kim family dynasty. China has shown to North Korea an example of capitalist success without replacing the ruling party, but even this appears risky to the Kims.

In recent years North Korea’s economy has emerged from its man-made crisis and it has been improved. North Koreans are led to believe by their leaders that this is a result of their independent – read isolationist – striving. However, such economic improvement is so fragile that any further irrational allocation of resources would crash its feeble growth easily. Reckless development of nuclear weapons is an economically irrational allocation of North Korea’s limited resources.

It is true that both China and North Korea tried communism in the past. However, China has decisively moved away from the communist practice and built a strong market economy. North Korea’s practice has been more of maintaining the family dynasty than otherwise. More importantly, North Koreans are convinced that China has betrayed its early communist commitment rather than what China has claimed itself as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Although this might be true, it takes away much of North Korea’s ideological trust in China’s advice.

Nevertheless, there has emerged a common ground for every country concerned or involved in North Korea crisis – the so-called “six parties:” the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, plus North Korea – that North Korea cannot fall as a state and reunification of North and South Koreas as an unpredictable strong power might not be in everyone’s interest. Rhetoric aside, the status quo or de-escalation of tension in the peninsula is a better choice for everyone.

China has been trying to bring North Korea back to the six-party peace talk, introduce its own post-communist model for growth to North Korea, and restrict trade with North Korea so as to discourage its nuclear tests, yet all in vain. The United States can help maintain the status quo by not providing additional excuses for North Korea to further mobilize its population and resources against the United States, so that North Korea may not fall apart, which would change the dynamics of Northeast Asia in a way that the current U.S. administration is certainly not ready or skillful enough to handle.