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.
China's master strategists are making sure the latest United Nations sanctions cannot extinguish the menace that North Korea poses to world peace. This week, Beijing (again) manipulated the UN into diluting sanctions so that they won't impede North Korea's development of nuclear weapons capable of striking targets as far away as Europe and North America.
The problem with the deter and contain strategy represented by sanctions is that it won't deter or contain anything. The minute North Korea demonstrates its ability to hit Los Angeles or Chicago with a nuclear bomb, the dynamic between Pyongyang and the rest of the world changes sharply.
In the meantime, China also knows that imposing truly harsh sanctions on North Korea could simply backfire. If Beijing were to cut off oil and food supports to its isolationist neighbour, North Korea's likely response would be to lash out militarily at China, putting Beijing into an extremely awkward dilemma.
Even if sanctions did inflict economic pain and harm on North Korea, that regime's cold indifference to the horrendous famine in the 1990s – when millions of its own citizens starved to death – suggests the nuclear program will continue unabated, civilian suffering be damned. Many children in North Korea today are stunted in growth due to a lack of nourishing food, even as elites live in luxury with their German cars and French cognac.
North Korea and China actually share the same endgame: Get the U.S. to abandon its defence of South Korea. Beijing would love nothing more than to see the withdrawal of American troops from regional bases in Korea and Japan. While Pyongyang wants to achieve that through threats of nuclear apocalypse, everyone else – including China – knows that the only realistic path forward to a new, more desirable era is through political change in Pyongyang.
For nearly 30 years, attempts to engage with North Korea have failed miserably; talks are simply a delaying tactic for Pyongyang. The UN of course has a responsibility to protect Korean people trapped in this nightmare regime, but needs full collaboration from China and Russia to make this happen.
Until the 1970s, North Korea – propped up by China and Warsaw Pact nations – was relatively prosperous, and arguably provided more social justice for its people than did the U.S.-backed military dictatorships in the South. But in the 1980s, ignoring warnings from China's leadership at the time, Kim Il-sung decided to make North Korea the first Stalinist system where hereditary sultanistic leadership would pass from father to son. Whereas China would abandon its failing Maoist political economy in favour of "opening and reform," North Korea clung to the stagnant norms of Leninism, with its disastrous "planned economy" and an ideological totalitarianism to sustain the Kim family's grip on power.
At the same time, a seismic shift was resetting the balance on the Korean Peninsula, as South Korea's political and economic transformations led to the free, democratic and economically robust society it enjoys today.
As North Korea's stubborn dysfunction deepens, China must be realizing that the time has come to act like a world leader and co-operate with the United States, Japan and South Korea to reunify the Korean Peninsula, along the lines of Germany's reunification 27 years ago. Beijing already has highly productive political and economic relations with South Korea, whereas North Korea has become deadweight for China.
Pyongyang houses the most repressive, dangerous regime on the planet, where entire families get sent to brutal prisons for the perceived sins of one member, where suffering and executions are the common fate of anyone who does not show complete devotion to the Kim family cult.
Don't expect Beijing to make any moves before next month's 19th Communist Party Congress. But later this fall, China could win unprecedented global credibility by emerging as the champion of an international effort that fixes the North Korea problem once and for all.