Tuesday June 2, 2020

January 17, 2014

New reports claim that China and the United States started closely discussing the fate of North Korea in 2009, when it became widely known that former DRPK leader Kim Jong-il was gravely ill. The two countries cooperated to examine the potential scenarios of what might happen if North Korea’s leader suddenly passed away. However, it is unknown what courses of action the US and China would have taken to ensure stability in the DPRK because Kim Jong-il successfully transferred power to his third son, Kim Jong-un, before he died in 2011. This evidence of past cooperation between the US and China shows a potential for future bilateral action over North Korea, a cooperation that seems to be increasingly necessary.

Latest news from North Korea

Since Kim Jong-un came to power, he has taken steps to solidify his control over North Korea, including holding multiple satellite and missile tests and continuing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, despite wide-spread international condemnation. He has also purged several military generals and advisors close to his father. His political actions recently caused an international stir in December when he ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-taek, who controlled the special economic zones along the Sino-DPRK border and increased coal exports to China at the expense of rising coal costs inside North Korea.

Kim Jong-un’s recent string of political purges and continued defiance of international norms regarding nonproliferation and human rights made headlines again this week with the broadcast of the PBS Frontline documentary “Secret State of North Korea.” The documentary is composed of previously unaired, video footage that was snuck out of North Korea through the Sino-North Korean border by a network of average citizens on USB drives and CDs. Before recent technological advances, it was difficult to procure news from inside North Korea. In addition to scenes demonstrating poor human rights conditions and the low quality of life in the North Korean countryside, the footage shows North Koreans defying their government’s stranglehold on information and repression of personal freedoms. In an interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour, Korea analyst Victor Cha stated that this is a sign that despite Kim Jong-un’s attempts to solidify his power, North Koreans are becoming dissatisfied with their government’s totalitarian control.

Strained Sino-DPRK relations

New York Times columnist Jonathan Pollack also scrutinized China’s alliance with East Asia’s rogue state this week. China has failed to translate the weight of its economic influence over North Korea into tangible foreign policy successes. Instead, North Korea has repeatedly defied China’s calls for it to halt its nuclear program and testing.  Because Jang was so closely connected to China, his execution can be seen as yet another piece of evidence that North Korea is shutting out its closest ally. Although China’s relationship with North Korea has long been touted as one of geostrategic necessity, as China positions itself as a regional leader, its tolerance of North Korea is a black spot on the narrative that China will be a responsible actor in the international order.

Future Sino-US cooperation

However, China is not the only regional leader failing to achieve progress on its foreign policy goals in North Korea.  The official US stance of non-engagement has also not produced stability in North Korea or curtailed North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. As seen above, the US and China have cooperated in the past when faced with potential instability in North Korea. However, China and US cannot realize success on other mutual interests in North Korea, especially nonproliferation, by pursuing separate, unilateral policies. Both nations need to cooperate to craft strategies to exert the right combination of power to produce changes in North Korea.  Sino and US strengthening of relations with South Korea is an additional way to signal to the DPRK that Kim Jong-un’s recent policies have further deteriorated its standing as a valuable state actor in East Asia.

For more information on the US, China, and North Korea, see the following news sources:

Telegraph –  US and China discuss North Korea contingency plan

New York Times“Why Does China Coddle North Korea?”

NPR“An Execution in North Korea has a chilling effect on China”

Korea Herald“China drops Cold War mentality in dealing with North Korea”

For Chinese language news on this topic, see below:

China Daily –  “中方呼吁朝鲜半岛有关各方保持克制 维护稳定势头”

China News“朝鲜经济特区今冬静悄悄”

BBC China“金正恩“犬决”张成泽真有其事?”

Compiled and edited by Amanda Conklin