Is China enabling North Korea’s missile program?

On February 12th North Korea had successfully tested a new medium-to-long range ballistic missile, Pukguksong-2. The missile is propelled by a solid fuel rocket and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. It travelled about 300 miles until it crashed into international waters.

The test drew condemnation from North Korea’s neighbors and the United States. China, Pyongyang’s closest ally, has also been criticized by Washington and Seoul for not doing enough to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. In response Beijing shot back at its critics saying that it’s the U.S. and South Korea’s refusal to negotiate with Pyongyang is stimming progress to find a solution to the conflict.

However, China provides 70% of North Korea’s total trade, whose volume approached $6.86 billion in 2014. Without Beijing’s energy and food supplies the Pyongyang regime would collapse.

Through its trade and humanitarian aid China is helping to perpetuate North Korea’s missile program. With each shipment of food and electrical power Beijing is helping to prolong the regime of Kim Jong-un. If China instituted a complete embargo Pyongyang would be unable to feed its people or provide electricity. Without the basic necessities to keep the country going the regime in Pyongyang would probably suffer a total governmental collapse where nobody could control the country.

The problem is that a governmental collapse of North Korea will probably result in regional destabilization and large refugee flows. China would lose its buffer zone and be forced to border a democratic Korea. Meanwhile, South Korea would have to integrate the backwards North Korean economy into its 21st century one. There would also be the issue of Pyongyang’s WMDs. A governmental collapse could precipitate a civil war where the warring sides might try to seize the nuclear arsenal and use it against each other or North Korea’s neighbors. A collapsing North Korean government might also try to sell their nuclear weapons to terrorists for extra funds.

In order to prevent such a scenario Beijing keeps sending aid to Pyongyang, but such efforts may not be enough.

Recent information from North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho show that Kim Jong-Un might not stay in power for long.

At the Seoul press conference Thae told the crowd that Kim’s days “are numbered” because of growing dissatisfaction among the ruling elites. Growing dissension among elites is rumored to be a result of Kim’s executions of high-ranking government officials.

Thae also noted that Kim has been unable to stem the flow of information into the country and is facing growing resistance among the population. South Korean movies and television shows are being smuggled inside and becoming popular through the country. At North Korea’s unofficial markets female merchants refuse to stop selling their goods even when faced with threats from the police.

Past North Korean defectors have made similar pronouncements, which lends credibility to Thae’s account.

If Kim continues to purge high-ranking elites and concentrate power around himself then any attempt by the elites to remove him from power might result in a governmental collapse.

Instead of cutting off food and electricity to North Korea Beijing might try to replace Kim. China could remove Kim from power by threatening to cut off North Korea’s aid if he does not resign as Supreme Leader. Other options such as assassination or a coup conducted by pro-Beijing North Korean leaders would represent a significant risk, and Beijing is traditionally viewed as being risk-adverse.

Threatening an embargo might work if China can give Kim the right incentive. For example, the “carrot and stick approach” would include Beijing threatening an embargo while promising to give Kim asylum in China. Allowing Kim to trade in his power for asylum might convince him to accept the deal and would not provoke an unhinged response.

The degree of Chinese influence among the North Korean ruling class is not known, but elites in Pyongyang might be grateful to China for removing Kim, given the fear of his ongoing purge, and the hope that Beijing might be willing to remove the trade sanctions it imposed in 2013.

China could use the threat of embargo to pressure the post-Kim regime to follow its orders. Beijing has shown that it disapproves of the program with such actions like supporting U.N. Resolutions 1718, which imposed economic sanctions on Pyongyang. In recent years China has responded to further North Korean nuclear test by reducing energy supplies and calling for the denuclearization talks, which suggests Beijing could be willing to pressure a post-Kim North Korea into giving up its nuclear program, if it possessed adequate leverage over Pyongyang’s regime.