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North Korea’s Chinese Buddies

Beijing Bails Out Kim Jong-il, and Earlier Than Usual
3 May 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

With “a battalion of security guards and female dining companions” aboard his train, North Korea’s leader arrived in China today en-route to Beijing. Kim Jong-il finds himself increasingly under pressure for the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan in March, isolated by international sanctions, and still reeling from having angered much of North Korea’s elite with last year’s currency fiasco.

So Kim would probably be grateful for just about anything Beijing will give him. And reports suggest China has lots of goodies to offer, in exchange for access to minerals and ports along the Sea of Japan.

China has attracted well-deserved criticism for ignoring the Cheonan ship incident for nearly a month. Now, after finally meekly expressing sympathy for an event that caught China (and the region) by surprise–an event that suggested North Korean brinkmanship could be getting more serious–why is Beijing going out of its way to help Kim?

The interests China has in North Korea are well-known and often discussed (see, for instance, the November International Crisis Group report), so I won’t rehash that discussion here. Suffice it to say that China cares about a stable North Korea more than it cares about nuclear non-proliferation. And China sees great strategic and economic potential in some of its investments in North Korea.

But there is something else in play.

North Korea has a habit of making noise–missile launches, nuclear tests, and now (it appears) torpedoing a South Korean navy boat–in the hopes that the international community will back off its aggressive sanctions and acquiesce to North Korea’s nuclear status.

Kim is then usually surprised to see that the surrounding countries, including China, actually unite in the face of the North’s provocation.

But, every time, after an initially strong response–a Security Council resolution, new sanctions, Seoul joining the Proliferation Security Initiative, Tokyo cutting economic ties–Beijing is always the first to blink. China offers some new investment package that keeps the regime going. It relaxes enforcement of the very UN Security Council-mandated sanctions it had supported weeks or months earlier.

This is not exactly the pattern of brinkmanship that President Obama alluded to when President Lee visited the White House nearly a year ago. Obama was talking about the cycle where the U.S. (and others) kept paying to bring North Korea back to the table, without accomplishing the goal of dismantling the North’s nuclear program.

But this current cycle has been the new cycle for the past few years: North Korea makes noise, everyone reacts strongly, China bails out North Korea.

But even that cycle may be changing.

This time, China hasn’t even waited the customary period before rushing to North Korea’s assistance. It is true we don’t yet know for sure if North Korea is to blame for the sinking of the Cheonan–but China doesn’t seem to care either way.

When the Chinese meet with Kim, they will attach some superficial conditions to their new investments, including probably requiring North Korea to “return” to the Six-Party Talks. But fundamentally, China is sending a message of support to Kim Jong-il. Even earlier than usual.

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