The president, though, is not alone in insisting that when it comes to solving the North Korea problem, China is the critical nation. The Obama administration thought so. The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agrees, as does the ranking Democrat. And countless others.
This notion that China offers the key to controlling the North reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Cold War-era history and the relationship between China and North Korea. Even worse, it has for decades encouraged U.S. policymakers to point a finger of blame at China, substituting simplistic panaceas for serious policymaking and tough decisions. In doing so, it has allowed U.S. leaders to abdicate their responsibility to address one of the most critical issues of the modern world.
It is, perhaps, an understandable position. After all, China and North Korea share a border, a political ideology, and a modern history of repressive leadership, anti-Americanism and a violent military struggle against the United States and its allies in the Korean War.
And yet the whole notion is wrong. Newly available documents from former communist-bloc nations have revealed the extent to which North Korea has long been an independent actor rather than a pawn in some larger struggle between communist and capitalist superpowers.
Even at the height of the Korean War, we now know, the alliance between China and North Korea was really a marriage of convenience, one fraught with tensions and disputes, rather than the true ideological partnership that most Americans believed it to be.
Little changed in the years immediately after the cease-fire. Things remained tense between China and North Korea, with leaders from the two sides rarely even speaking at diplomatic functions. Relations improved after the Chinese increased financial assistance to the North in the later part of the 1950s, but they declined again in the mid-1960s. Kim Il Sung banned Chinese propaganda, news and cultural exchange. Meanwhile Chinese officials in North Korea (DPRK) insisted that they would “observe the laws of the DPRK which they like and would not observe those which they did not like.” Leaders traded personal insults and denounced each other as criminals and worse: Kim, the Chinese Red Guard declared, was a “fat revisionist.” Violent skirmishes even broke out along the border in the late 1960s, with the Chinese Red Guard placing Korean casualties on a freight train they sent back across the tracks to North Korea, covered with graffiti declaring, “This will also be your fate, you tiny revisionists.”
Many factors underlay this tension, but at its heart was a basic reality that communist leaders recognized but that U.S. policymakers have still not accepted: North Korea was determined to resist Chinese influence on its policymaking under almost any circumstances.
The two sides made amends by the end of the 1960s, and relations never reached that nadir again. Still, they continued to have a largely utilitarian relationship based on mutual self-interest, coexisting for the next decades as independent nations that maintained autonomous policymaking objectives and a healthy distrust of each other.
The end of the Cold War and the blossoming of Chinese ties to the West strained things even further and reinforced the constraints on Chinese influence in Pyongyang. The North particularly saw China’s recognition of South Korea in 1992 as a betrayal. Economic ties persisted, but political relations continued to be strained. Leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reveal that in 2010, Chinese officials even told the American ambassador that their nation would accept Korean reunification under Seoul’s leadership but lamented that China had far less influence on the North than “most people believe.”
U.S. officials, however, continue to find this hard to accept. The North Korea problem could be solved, we have heard over and over again, if only China would do something! For the past few decades, the pattern has been simple and predictable: North Korea does something provocative. U.S. officials demand that China bring them to heel. China offers some empty words and gestures, but nothing really happens. So U.S. officials rail against China for its unhelpfulness and then retreat to their offices, where they actively hope that the problem goes away without actually doing anything about it.
We might debate whether China can be persuaded to do the bidding of the United States under any circumstances, because action against Pyongyang carries serious risks for China as well. But the more fundamental question is whether Chinese pressures could even be effective against such a regime. For decades North Korean leaders have maintained massive illegal trade networks for everything from drugs to weapons to counterfeit dollars that generate enormous revenue outside conventional channels; they have shown no concerns about starving their own people; and above all else, they have guarded their decision-making independence with a ferocity that shows no sign of weakening.
This doesn’t mean that approaches to China, even tough ones, to exert pressure on the rogue state should be abandoned. But it does mean that as the North draws ever closer to developing missile technology that would enable it to strike the United States, U.S. officials can no longer just toss the ball in Beijing’s direction and hope that good things happen.
Instead, U.S. policymakers must seriously consider a wide variety of measures, even unilateral ones, that carry significant risks: stricter sanctions enforcement, including for secondary sanctions; greater use of Section 311 of the Patriot Act to go after money-laundering networks; an expansion of President Barack Obama’s “Left of Launch” electronic warfare program; and even direct military action if necessary.
Whatever the policy response is, though, it has to start by accepting the idea of the United States as the critical actor, regardless of the consequences. Effective action will not come from clinging to tired maxims about the influence of China.
There is an old Korean proverb: “A shrimp is crushed in a battle of the whales.” It is time for U.S. policymakers to remember that China is not the only whale in the ocean.