Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and is a former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing
North Korea's fortunately failed launch of a ballistic missile from near Sinpo, on its eastern coast early Sunday morning is the fifth missile launch by North Korea this year. This one just a day after North Korea staged a massive military parade showing an impressively expanded and improved ballistic missile capability, including refinements that indicated the ability to set them off from submarines and ground-based mobile launchers that could scoot away before U.S. retaliatory missiles could get to take them out.
In the meantime, a U.S. aircraft-carrier strike group is steaming to the region and U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence is heading to South Korea to brief its senior political and military leaders on how this is likely to play out from the American point of view. The lurid high-volume North Korean rhetoric threatening dire consequences for the U.S. and committing to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" continues unabated. The Chinese President, barely over his jet lag from his Mar-a-Lago loss of face over the U.S.'s firing 59 missiles in Syria as he ate dinner kept in humiliating ignorance by Donald Trump, was again on the phone with Mr. Trump urging that the U.S. "show restraint" in the face of the latest Presidential late-night tweets baldly indicating that Mr. Trump wants action on North Korea sooner rather than later – with or without Chinese collaboration.
The U.S. administration's proposal conveyed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Beijing last month is that China work together with them to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea on the basis that this should be a win-win for all concerned. But China's reply – that the U.S. abandon its annual joint military exercises with South Korea, in exchange for more years of "dialogue and consultation" with North Korea mediated by China – amounts to a non-response, as of course Chinese authorities cannot by any stretch of the imagination expect the Trump administration would go along with any of it. North Korea will never accede to a diplomatic engagement that would lead to it giving up the DPRK's ever-strengthening nuclear threat.
Many see two factors behind China's reluctance to move on North Korea: 1) fear of North Korean refugees flooding into China as the DPRK regime implodes, and 2) fear of the geopolitical implications of a U.S.-oriented reunited Korea on China's northeast border. But one wonders if this is a complete explanation. First of all, China has massive resources to control its border with the Korean peninsula. Second, a reunified Korea would likely ally itself with China, as the strategic need for U.S. military presence in Korea would be eliminated.
In fact, the key to China's policy of non-action on the Korea threat lies more in Chinese domestic factors. The reason China characterizes its relations with the DPRK as "close as lips and teeth" is because the two nations share the same political and social institutions inherited from Stalin's Russia and a long history of very close collaboration between the Chinese and North Korean communist parties and military elites.
One unfortunate consequence of entrenching the Kim family dynasty in North Korea is that the sons are unable to follow the Chinese example of "opening and economic reform." Repudiating the past – as China did by characterizing its Cultural Revolution as "10 years of disaster," thus making Beijing's opening and reform program possible – is not available to the Pyongyang regime that bases its legitimacy on the perfect legacy of Kim rule through the generations, an economic and human-rights disaster with a politic of Shakespearean medieval kingly norms, to the extent of executing scheming uncles and murdering half-brothers with constant behind-the-scenes political drama and military posturing.
Nevertheless the post-Kim fallout of a German-like reunification of Korea would be profoundly politically destabilizing for China. The opening of the secret police files and the seeking of redress by the politically wronged, followed by the inevitable public trials for corruption and political venality of China's "lips and teeth" North Korean political and military elite would trigger huge interest among citizens of China. Parallels to the Chinese system would be too closely drawn for the Chinese Communist Party leadership to explain away, and the threat this poses to mainland Chinese political stability could well be the beginning of the end of the Chinese Communist Party's single-party authoritarian rule. Moreover, the files would likely show PRC regime complicity in a lot of matters relating to the DPRK that would severely debase China's international prestige.
Thus, the PRC is paralyzed into inaction on North Korea. If Beijing works with the U.S. to neutralize the DPRK's nuclear threat, the road to collapse of North Korean communism is irreversible, with concomitant implications for China's political future.
If China does nothing, it leaves it to the U.S. to take unilateral action without China's support, which would put the lie to China's ambitions to be the future hegemon of East Asia.
The second option appears the most likely future scenario. "Show restraint" is not the sort of language President Trump tweets.