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5 reasons China won't help shut down North Korea's nuclear program

How others see it

In Washington, all eyes are on Beijing as Chinese leaders decide how to respond to North Korea's recent satellite launch. Why are they so hesitant to act?

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    A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard outside the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Sunday. North Korea on Sunday defied international warnings and launched a long-range rocket that the United Nations and others call a cover for a banned test of technology for a missile that could strike the U.S mainland.
    Andy Wong/AP
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In the wake of North Korea's satellite launch on Sunday, the United States is – once again – steadily pressuring China to force Pyongyang to end its missile and nuclear program.

The reasons are many for focusing on China in the wake of the test, which analysts viewed as cover for the North's intercontinental ballistic missile program. North Korea is almost wholly reliant on its neighboring giant. The flood of Chinese energy, material, food, and trade in recent years has allowed the country to step back from abject poverty and decrepitude.

US officials have looked to China as the answer to Mr. Kim’s programs for years, as North Korea has slowly become a de facto nuclear state. They contend that China doesn't want nukes on its border.

For their part, Chinese leaders have steadily condemned North Korea's nuclear program in the UN Security Council. President Xi Jinping reportedly dislikes and refuses to meet Kim. And Chinese popular opinion runs strongly against the North's upstart nuclear bid. 

Beijing could quickly and easily shut down Pyongyang’s lifeline if it wanted to. Isn't it all relatively simple?

Actually, it's not. For reasons seen as fundamental to China's interests, it's highly unlikely that the country will use its leverage to force North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. Even the recent threat by Washington to deploy high-tech missile systems in South Korea, which would allow the Pentagon more immediate range and visibility into the North as well as China, may not be a persuasive stick. 

Here are five reasons from China's perspective:

A little revolution may not be a good thing

China's leaders value stability above all. Chinese analysts know how fragile the North’s society and regime are. To cut oil supplies and trade could fragment and destroy the North, fomenting revolution and chaos. Such instability could bring floods of refugees, a military backlash, or a crisis that would force the intervention of South Korea and thus the US and Japan. It’s a nightmare scenario for China.

North Korea is a stable 'buffer'

East Asia remains in a long-simmering “power game” among nations. Beijing may disapprove of its old cold war ally, but China needs North Korea as a stable and secure buffer against the West’s zone of influence. An underdeveloped North separates China from a vibrant and democratic South Korea.

Chinese officials cannot imagine allowing a scenario that promotes some form of unification of the North and South that would end up with US troops or South Korean tanks along its long Yellow River border. Keeping the North stable means keeping the US out of its immediate proximity. For some Chinese generals, that’s nearly existential.

China still needs friends, and allies

China’s rise in recent years, along with its more imperious role in the South China Sea and on its periphery, has not enamored it to its neighbors. Its narrative of a “harmonious rise” has been tainted – from the Philippines to Vietnam and even in South Korea. Yet China remains a [relative] ally to the North. It serves as the North’s interlocutor with the West and retains in influential circles in Beijing a history of fellow travelers and communists. That’s a high-value card.

Yet there is always the possibility that Kim could change his mind and reach out to make deals with the West in a similar fashion to Iran. In the late 1990s, Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, made progress in creating ties with former president Bill Clinton's administration. Pyongyang has harbored deep suspicions of Beijing since the 1950s. Yet even if China and the North can’t have a beautiful marriage, they don’t want a divorce. China may not want to lose its valued purchase or relative control of a partner and neighbor. 

No refugees and border chaos, please.

Cutting off aid and trade to North Korea could bring a flood of refugees into China. In the 1990s, amid a famine in the North, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled over the border. They did so in spite of dire warnings and threats of torture and death. While there is no similar mass hunger today, China worries about sparking a refugee crisis. The prospect would not only be expensive and potentially flare ethnic tensions, it would also violate a Chinese prime directive: stability.

A reunified Korea is an economic competitor

A reunified, robust Korea could cut into China's clout and competitiveness. Why help bring that about? 

Before it divided, Korea was largely agrarian and saw itself as a shrimp among the whales of China and Japan. But South Korea , with its 50 million people, hovers among the top 10 industrialized nations. Just as the South cut into Japan's share two decades ago, a unified Korea could give Beijing a tough competitor, one more loaded with precious raw materials and resources. Academics and policymakers in Seoul have looked to the example of Germany reunifying in the early 1990s. The creation of a series of joint North-South industrial parks like Kaesong using a highly disciplined and educated population might look like an economic threat in Beijing.

“Korea can never be a large nation,” wrote Asia columnist Philip Bowring in 2013, “but the combination of the South's global impact on technology and on popular culture with the energy that a reviving northern region – which also has a younger population – could provide, is a prospect that is not without problems for Beijing.” 

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