Opinion

Why China might turn on North Korea

As Beijing strives to become a responsible great power, the costs of staying allied with North Korea may come to surpass the costs of abandoning it.

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North Korea's provocations are testing more than weapons and diplomacy. Recent actions by the United Nations, South Korea, Japan, and United States, while well developed and coordinated, are insufficient. An effective international response hinges on how national identity changes in China reshape Beijing's strategic interests toward Pyongyang.

Owing to North Korea's historical relations with and economic dependence on China, analysts argue that Chinese leaders hold the key to solving the "North Korea problem." But the Obama administration understands, as did the Bush administration, that maximizing pressure on Beijing would be counterproductive.

China has long seen its national interests served by the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. According to a cold-war perspective about strategic balance and a post-cold-war emphasis on internal development, Beijing prioritized maintaining a buffer state and preventing North Korea's problems from spilling over China's border. While Beijing retains these priorities, the chances of it getting tough with Pyongyang are low.

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However, the China of today is not the China that came to Pyongyang's aid during the Korean War – its national identity has evolved over decades of rapid development and international integration. The ideas of communist solidarity and laying low to focus on modernization are becoming obsolete.

Instead, China covets its traditional role at the center of Asia, entailing not only power, but also respect and responsibility. Such ambition is possible thanks to the success of an economic model that has brought China closer to the US, Japan, and South Korea.

China's growing identity gap with North Korea may be changing the way China views its own interests. Chinese now ask whether Beijing underestimates the costs of a nuclear-armed North Korea and being the largest backer of the Kim regime. There are also questions about whether China overestimates the usefulness of a buffer against US and South Korean forces, the challenge of North Korean refugees, and the probability of international military conflict on the peninsula.

Given the responsible great power China wants to become, the costs of staying allied with North Korea may come to surpass the costs of abandoning it.

The priority for Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo should be to stay on the same page, especially through North Korea's leadership transition. Pyongyang's belligerence provides an opportunity to fundamentally attract Beijing to the allies' position. Nuclear proliferation, illegal arms tests and trade, and holding foreign journalists for ransom are becoming anathemas to Chinese identity.

Zero-sum thinking about political and economic influence on the strategic Korean Peninsula won't suddenly disappear. However, the long-term interests that China shares with Japan, South Korea, and the US will become increasingly apparent.

Pyongyang's provocations are testing how China's changing national identity shapes its strategic interests and ultimately foreign policy. The extent to which Beijing cooperates with Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul hangs in the balance.

• Leif-Eric Easley is a PhD candidate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California Korean Studies Institute.

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