Chinese power over North Korea? It’s more myth than reality


At first glance, it seems the perfect solution to the world’s most dangerous standoff: Find a way to get China to use its enormous influence to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear bombs.

The countries, after all, share a long, porous border, several millennia of history and deep ideological roots. Tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of Chinese soldiers, including Mao Zedong’s son, died to save North Korea from obliteration during the Korean War, and China is essentially Pyongyang’s economic lifeline, responsible for most of its trade and oil.

The notion of Chinese power over the North — that the countries are as “close as lips and teeth,” according to a cliche recorded in the 3rd century — is so tantalizing that Donald Trump has spent a good part of his young presidency playing it up.

The reality, however, is that the complicated, often exasperating, relationship is less about friendship or political bonds than a deep and mutually uneasy dependency. Nominally allies, the neighbors operate in a near constant state of tension, a mix of ancient distrust and dislike and the grating knowledge that they are inextricably tangled up with each other, however much they might chafe against it.

This matters because if China is not the solution to the nuclear crisis, then outsiders long sold on the idea must recalibrate their efforts as North Korea approaches a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, something the CIA chief this week estimated as only a matter of months away.

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